Lake St. Martin First Nation may finally have a deal to get members home again.
Chief Adrian Sinclair confirmed he and the council of his First Nation signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) Monday with the federal and provincial governments for a settlement package.
The deal is worth hundreds of millions of dollars in land and infrastructure, in a proposal to be cost-shared 50/50 between the federal and provincial governments, he said.
"It's a whole new community, a brand-new community, and it would put Lake St. Martin on the map," Sinclair said.
However, the normally ebullient chief struck a cautious tone on the prospects for the deal.
Sinclair said the deal is subject to a community-wide vote to be organized in September and until then, it's only a proposed deal.
'It's a whole new community, a brand-new community, and it would put Lake St. Martin on the map'
He also declined to release details of the proposed settlement in advance of a community meeting for band members Thursday.
Lake St. Martin is 255 kilometres north of Winnipeg.
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada reports a registered population of 2,269 and a total on-reserve population of 1,395.
An elders meeting Tuesday on the deal appeared to go well at the First Nation's band offices in Winnipeg.
Lake St. Martin was destroyed in the 2011 flood, forcing the evacuation of the entire population at a cost of tens of millions of dollars to the federal government.
The majority of the nearly 1,900 flood evacuees still displaced three years later are from Lake St. Martin. Most of them are housed in hotel rooms and apartments in Winnipeg, fracturing the once closely knit community that has suffered a string of suicides and deaths community leaders link to the displacement.
Sinclair allowed a reporter to scan the original MOU document with its signatures but not make notes from it. Ten pages long, the proposed settlement laid out a blueprint for a new townsite for the First Nation. Along with it, there is a survey map that showed the new Lake St. Martin would be settled on 30 adjoining sections of land to the north of the existing reserve. That would make Lake St. Martin the second-largest reserve in Manitoba, next to Peguis First Nation.
The document includes some figures; $37 million for a new kindergarten-to-Grade 12 school and more than $72 million for housing.
The deal also listed a commitment to build a church, graveyard, daycare centre, community centre, band office, water-treatment plant, medical centre, new roads, an extensive drainage system to protect the new reserve lands from future flooding and infrastructure necessary to support a community of 2,500 people.
"It's a start," said the chief. "We've never been this far (along) before."
The document also outlines a strategy to protect government funds that would build a new Lake St. Martin, with plans for a trust fund to hold and release funds as construction progresses.
"There's no way anyone can mishandle the money, all of it (goes into the trust fund)," Sinclair said. "That was strongly recommended by the chief and council, and those were our marching orders from the members," he said.
Manitoba Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson called the deal more comprehensive than agreements in the past with Lake St. Martin.
"We're not sending the people back to where they came from. We're building a whole new community," the minister said.
"It's a comprehensive plan and it's the furthest we've been with the First Nation. It includes a work plan and a process to follow... plus a backup plan," the minister said. "And it's got the signature of the federal government," he said.
Sinclair credited Sid Dutchak, the federal aboriginal affairs envoy appointed to the Manitoba flood file, for creating the breakthrough in negotiations that got the deal on paper.
In an emailed response, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said the deal with Lake St. Martin "is a significant step forward in returning remaining evacuees to their home communities."
"The chief federal negotiator, Sid Dutchak, will continue working with the leadership of Lake St. Martin First Nation and the province of Manitoba to finalize an agreement."
The community has come close to settlements for a new land base only to have them fall through at the last minute, the result of one scandal after another.
Initially, the province built a subdivision for flood victims near Lake St. Martin, on a former radar base in Gypsumville. That fell through after news reports the chief had signed on with a private partner to supply 150 mobile homes for the interim village, charges Sinclair vehemently denied.
When the province came up with a new land base for the flooded-out First Nation on farmland next to the existing reserve, academics criticized it as just as flood-prone as the submerged reserve. Finally this spring, another scandal surfaced over some homes the federal government had ordered demolished on the existing reserve being sold as cottages off-reserve.