OTTAWA -- Flood evacuees from Lake St. Martin First Nation may soon have a new place to live.
The federal and Manitoba governments, along with the band chief and council, announced Thursday they have agreed on a site to rebuild the community after flooding in 2011 left most of it uninhabitable.
The new site, a combination of provincial Crown land and land purchased from two farming families, sits next to the existing reserve but on slightly higher ground.
"There's a tremendous amount of relief," said Dennis Cameron, an adviser to Lake St. Martin Chief Adrian Sinclair. Sinclair directed all questions to Cameron Thursday.
Residents of Lake St. Martin were forced from their homes in May 2011 and have been unable to return. Chronic flooding over several years left most of the homes uninhabitable and the ground saturated. Ottawa has spent more than $70 million housing and feeding evacuees from Lake St. Martin and five other reserves over the last two years. About 1,074 residents of Lake St. Martin are still living in hotels and private accommodation paid for by the federal government.
Another 60 people are living in 17 modular homes purchased by the province and set up on a former radar base near Gypsumville.
Lake St. Martin sits between Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg, about 300 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.
Nobody would put an actual date on a possible return but one source said it's hoped the first people could move into new homes on the new land before the end of the year.
But much has to happen first, including a chance for the community to ratify the site choice in a referendum, the completion of federal paperwork to designate the site as reserve land, a community development plan and agreements as to which governments will pay for what.
The new site includes about 960 acres of land surrounding the existing reserve on three sides. Highway 513 runs through the middle of it.
In a statement, federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said the site selection "is an important step toward returning Lake St. Martin evacuees to their home community."
Manitoba Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson was attending the funeral of Manitoba aboriginal leader Elijah Harper in Red Sucker Lake and unavailable for comment. His spokesman said there is still work to be done but it's a good step forward.
"We're happy to have some movement on this," said Jean-Marc Prevost.
However, not everyone is thrilled with the chosen location and as recently as six months ago the chief and council were still rejecting it. Sinclair and the other councillors were upset the province purchased the land without the First Nation's knowledge and believed a different plot, a few kilometres away from the lake, was better. Negotiations broke down for months and restarted last November.
Cameron said Thursday after engineering studies were completed, the chief and council agreed the land adjacent to the existing reserve was the best option.
But one source close to the reserve said the location is not going over well with many Lake St. Martin residents. He said it's believed the chief and council caved in to the government's demand because the people are desperate.
"People have lived for two years in the city now," he said. "They have been forced into this."
He said it's believed Ottawa preferred this site because it would be cheaper to build onto existing infrastructure such as roads and water lines.
Many Lake St. Martin residents fear the new site is not much higher than the old one and will flood again.
Cameron said flood mitigation work is part of the agreement to go with the new site.