EBB AND FLOW FIRST NATION -- It took photographer Ruth Bonneville and me about one minute to realize we'd made a big mistake.
We cruised into Ebb and Flow First Nation on the western shore of Lake Manitoba expecting to see what we'd seen in many other reserves -- mouldering, graffiti-covered houses with plywood for windows, cannibalized cars in yards and the gloom of chronic poverty.
Ebb and Flow earned a dismal score on what's called the community well-being index, an index based on 2006 census data that gives every city, town and reserve in the province a score out of 100. The index looks at education levels, housing quality, income and employment rates.
Sandy Bay and Shamattawa First Nations are at the bottom of Manitoba's list, each with a score of 36.
The affluent suburbs of East St. Paul and Headingley are at the top, with scores nearing 90.
Ebb and Flow earned a score of 45, making it the 23rd worst place to live out of 270-odd towns and cities in the province. Ruth and I drove two hours to find out why. What are the structural reasons Ebb and Flow is among the worst, while an hour west on the highway, Dauphin is doing just fine?
Turns out, the data lied. Ebb and Flow is doing fine, too.
It has its problems, including a ridiculously overcrowded school, high unemployment and mould in many homes.
But nearly everyone we spoke to, from teachers on recess duty to the manager of the local arena, said the community has improved dramatically in the last few years.
As we pulled into the reserve, Ruth and I saw nothing but tidy, cute bungalows surrounded by white farm fences, an ultra-modern health centre on the highway and a brand-new gas bar and grocery store, where we stopped for granola bars. It looked more like the drive into Grand Beach than the cliché of the bleak reserve.
The moment we stepped out of the truck, the gas station attendants, leaning up against the porch, started teasing us for being from the big-city paper, saying they'd run in to get the manager to speak to us and that we should buy a coffee because it was the best in town.
Inside, the store was pristine -- the white paint barely dry, the cereal boxes and toilet paper lined up tidily on the shelves, the hot-pink sale flyers stacked neatly by the till.
The building used to be a cross between a community centre and a Goodwill store, where people would bring their unwanted items. Open for just a month, the store employs seven people, including what store manager Pam Pompana calls her "jack-of-all-trades," Waylon Malcolm. He's the tall, tattooed young staffer with the studded wristband who fished around the candy rack looking for liquorice for Ruth.
When Ruth asked the diminutive Pompana to reach up and take a huge Ebb and Flow dream catcher down off the wall for a photo, assistant manager Marcella Vandal knew whom to call.
"Waylon!" she hollered, half-joking.
The Ebb and Flow store is the only place to get real groceries in the community. For years, residents have made the drive into Ste. Rose du Lac to the IGA.
"Everyone's excited," said Pompana. "You don't have to take the truck down the highway to get anything."
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The store represents a small step toward the one thing the reserve lacks -- economic development.
Like every reserve, the only economic reason it exists is because there are 1,600 people whose treaty with the Crown says they ought to live there. They need health services, gas and groceries, a rec centre, housing -- and that's what creates jobs. There is virtually no enterprise that brings in money from outside the band, except a bison ranch run by the courtly Maurice Mousseau.
It's got about 300 head and 90 calves that will be sent out for finishing. But bison prices are low right now, so the ranch isn't yet a significant money-maker.
Chief Nelson Houle says only about a third of the people in the community have jobs. The rest live on social assistance. His goal is to get people to spend their money on the reserve first -- at the grocery store, the restaurant in the rec centre, the gas bar. His next goal is to create some kind of economic development group to start the band looking for new revenue streams.
That's difficult when there is little access to capital, he said.
"How do you start when you've got nowhere to start from?" asked Houle, who worked for MTS and Manitoba Hydro in Portage la Prairie before running for chief in 2010.
And it's galling to see a gravel pit operating and chalet-style homes being built on a patch of land the band believes it's owed under its 1871 treaty with the Crown.
"In our culture, we always say, 'Don't look back, always look ahead,' " said Houle. "That's hard to do when there's always that sense of mistrust."
The most recent setback was last year's flood, which soaked roughly 20 homes, rendering them uninhabitable. The band now posts security guards on the roads into the still-flooded areas to discourage squatters and thieves.
One displaced family, Frank Houle, his partner Rachel Govreau and their kids, has been living in what was the band's former fitness centre since the end of September. Four neatly made beds line up on one side of the huge room, with a new sectional couch tucked up against an office-style whiteboard on the other. Before they hunkered down in the windowless fitness centre, the family moved from hotels in Dauphin, McCreary and Winnipeg, where Govreau gave birth last fall to the couple's youngest child, a daughter named Trinity.
They're waiting for a mobile home to arrive to house their blended family, and one for Houle's mother, Anne, who also lost her home. They've been living like refugees since the flood hit June 2.
"It's just been really hard and emotional," Govreau said. "You feel so helpless and defeated, you feel like giving up."
The Lake Manitoba flood, which Chief Nelson Houle calls a man-made phenomenon that saved some Manitobans and sacrificed his band members, also put Ebb and Flow's baseball fields under water and turned a small spit of sacred land into an island. It's there the band traditionally holds its spiritual events and buries its elders.
The flood did mean new roads, though, built up and freshly gravelled by the province.
The flood aside, Ebb and Flow's bungalows and split-levels are in excellent condition compared to those on many reserves.
"The people in this community seem to take care of their homes," said Coun. Wayne Desjarlais as he showed us around the reserve.
Overcrowding might be an issue, but we asked a half-dozen people if they knew anyone in an overcrowded house, and no one did.
But Houle said mould plagues close to 300 of the reserve's 400-plus homes, many of which were built in a substandard fashion. Band members tend to suffer chronic respiratory problems because of the mould, he said.
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The reserve is growing, which is why Houle says there are not enough houses to go around, but perhaps the best evidence of the population boom is the school.
It's bursting with kids. It was built in 1982 for 250 kids, kindergarten to Grade 12. Now there are more like 700, not counting the vocational and skilled-trades training that happens in a couple of tiny teacherages.
The school's two speech experts work in a windowless storage room. It's so small, and there are so many kids needing speech therapy, that students park themselves on the floor.
Then there's the library, which amounts to a few Rubbermaid storage bins and a trolley cart.
The old library was converted to a classroom, so librarian Richard Lavallee created a kind of travelling-salesman setup, where he visits each class with a bin of books. All the non-fiction books are stored in 56 bins in the school's crawl space, and there are no magazines and newspapers, which used to draw in the teenagers.
"How many provincial schools don't have a proper library?" asked Desjarlais, the school's former principal.
The school is already maxed out on portables -- there just isn't water and sewer capacity for more than seven or eight. That means the staff room will be converted into yet another classroom. The band has started to plan for a new high school, one that combines vocational training, adult education and the provincial high school curriculum.
Despite the sardine-like conditions, it's clearly a school that functions. Desjarlais says there's no problem hiring teachers, most of whom are from Ebb and Flow or nearby Sandy Bay. The building is spotless -- if a little heavy on 1980s cinderblock decor. Every classroom is wallpapered with colourful math posters and maps. There's a sense of relaxed and upbeat collegiality among the staff. The students are well-behaved and engaged. When we stopped by Frank Houle and Rachel Govreau's house later in the day, the first thing their teenage daughter did when she got home from school was pull out her Ojibwa homework and get cracking so she could go skating at the arena later.
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Late in the day, as the sun was setting and we were on our way home, we pulled over on the side of Highway 278 to get a photo and promptly slid sideways into the ditch.
Within a minute, as Ruth and I started to panic, a pickup truck stopped and a young guy named Peter wordlessly started hauling out his yellow tow rope. Two or three other pick-ups also stopped to see if the Free Press girls needed help.
As he was clipping his tow line to our Free Press Jeep, I asked Peter how far it was to Dauphin.
"About 45 minutes," he grinned. "If you stay on the road."