Indian and Northern Affairs Canada is pumping $2.6 million into temporary clay dikes, sandbagging and emergency measures to protect two Interlake First Nations from flood damage.
One clay dike at Little Saskatchewan First Nation will stretch a total of six kilometres. INAC officials peg the cost at $745,000.
At the neighbouring Lake St. Martin First Nation, a similar clay dike is underway where the reserve's main road runs along the swollen Lake St. Martin. INAC has approved flood protection at a cost of $1.2 million.
The two Interlake Ojibwa reserves, located 255 kilometres north of Winnipeg near Gypsumville, sit on low ground in the path of a primary juncture between Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg.
Critics of the dikes say Ottawa should be evacuating people, not building dikes, because flooding is already happening.
Last weekend, mourners at Lake St. Martin watched in numb horror as water rose up from the bottom of a grave before a casket was lowered into it, just as diking got started.
"There was water in that grave when we set the casket in," said Emery Stagg, grandson of the late elder Mary Stagg, 99. "I looked in the grave and there was half a foot of water in it."
The pity was the burial went ahead, anyway.
"They had the box in there and they had to bury it. I didn't know what to think. It's the first time I've seen anything like that," Stagg said.
Chiefs for both First Nations said diking is a last-ditch measure.
The offer to build a dike came a month after the province opened up the gates at the Fairford Water Control Structure, sending water rushing into Lake St. Martin. In January, the two First Nations raised an alarm with Ottawa about flooding this spring.
It's the first time they remember INAC releasing massive funds on an emergency basis, the chiefs said.
"To evacuate is the appropriate way to go," Lake St. Martin Chief Adrian Sinclair said. Some homes are already surrounded by water, he said.
"We've never seen water like this."
Most of Lake St. Martin's homes are mould-infested and aren't worth saving, he said. At least 240 people have chronic respiratory or other medical conditions related to decades of flood damage and need to be evacuated as soon as possible.
Little Saskatchewan First Nation Chief Gerald Anderson said 100 ailing and elderly people at his reserve need to move out before they're flooded in, dike or no dike.
The dike is being built to hold back water at 805 feet above sea level; but the reality is the reserve sits several feet lower than that.
"Seventy to eighty per cent of it would be underwater at 805 feet above sea level," Anderson said.
Warmer weather is guaranteed to raise the flood risk. "When it does roll in, the water is going to come in on us," Anderson said.
INAC is spending another $563,000 in sandbagging, culvert drainage and pumps, which may be the best way to clear an escape route if flood waters pour in.
The chiefs said they hope the dikes will work but warned their geography -- and provincial flood prevention measures to protect southern Manitoba -- are almost certain to work against them.
Since 1975, annual floods have super-saturated the ground on the two reserves. Lake St. Martin and Little Saskatchewan have been in talks with Ottawa for years about relocating to higher ground.