Flood of injustice High waters remain way of life for descendants of Peguis families forced from their lands more than a century ago
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More than 50 years ago, renowned Anishinaabe artist Daphne Odjig presented a huge mural entitled The Great Flood to Peguis High School — an installation that marked Manitoba’s centennial in 1971.
The painting remains to this day in the community, where art now resembles reality.
At the mural’s centre stands the central being of Anishinaabe creation stories, Nanabush, surrounded by 13 animals. All the figures are in motion, as if scrambling. Most look in distress. In Nanabush’s hands is a kaswentha, a two-row wampum treaty, twisting in the wind.
Seeping from the bottom of the painting, water slowly encompasses the scene.
It is clear that the entire community is about to be flooded.
Odjig could not have captured a more accurate description of the experience of Peguis First Nation. Flooding here is a way of life; whether it be by people, water or trauma.
Odjig visited Peguis First Nation throughout the 1960s with her husband, Chester Beavon, who worked for the Department of Indian Affairs. In fact, she toured dozens of First Nations, arriving in Peguis in 1966, not long after what had been the worst flood in the community’s history in 1962.
While there, Odjig heard the stories of the community’s forcible removal in 1907 by the federal and provincial governments from their homelands near Selkirk to the northern banks of the Fisher River near Hodgson in Manitoba’s Interlake.
She was told by elders and leaders about how, for decades, they had tried to make a life after their removal but were thwarted by the floodplain of the Fisher River. Virtually every spring, the river’s banks would be overcome with water — flooding homes, destroying agriculture, devastating wildlife and eliminating nearly any opportunity for a livelihood.
Odjig witnessed first hand the legacies of this flooding and how it manifested in poverty, addictions, and trauma, but also how it instilled a sense of resilience in the community.
Years later, after becoming one of Canada’s foremost artists, Odjig was asked to make a mural about Manitoba and The Great Flood was birthed.
Her painting’s statement was simple: that the community of Peguis, once flooded out of their southern home by people, now endured a devastating, never-ending flood from water.
There is not one Peguis citizen who has not been affected by our community’s flooding.
My great-grandfather was one of those citizens, lasting only a few years up north before buying a small plot of land on our old homelands and moving our family back.
For others, it is a shared pain of witnessing the lives of our families destroyed and (if possible) rebuilt nearly every single spring; a cycle that comes with near endless anxiety, uncertainty, and paralysis.
This year is the worst flood in Peguis’s history.
As of right now, nearly 1,800 Peguis citizens sit in hotels in Winnipeg, Gimli, Selkirk, Brandon, and Portage la Prairie – over half the entire community.
Government officials and university researchers keep calling this year a “once in 100 years flood event.”
Only it’s not.
Anyone in Peguis will tell you this is the fourth life-altering flood in a dozen years. Each and every time, hundreds of people have ended up in hotels for weeks or months, only to return home to unsanitary conditions, moold, and irreparable damage – not to mention pennies on the dollar when and if compensation is delivered.
Anyone who wants to debate this, consider this fact: last month, over 120 Peguis citizens were still displaced by the 2014 flood. In 2021, almost a hundred remained displaced by the 2011 flood.
Subsequent Canadian and Manitoba governments know flooding occurs like clockwork at Peguis but do little beyond commission studies on “causes and solutions.”
A 2009 province of Manitoba engineering study said that Peguis and nearby Fisher River “undergo flooding more frequently and are more severely impacted than most other communities in Manitoba.”
Most studies offers the same solutions: diverting the Fisher River, raising homes to protect them from flooding, and building a permanent dike around the community.
Little action has occurred.
In 2017 — five years ago — Peguis Chief Glenn Hudson said that there is “more spent on disaster relief than mitigating floods.”
Twenty years earlier, after Manitoba’s “Flood of the Century,” hundreds of millions of dollars were spent building dikes to protect southern towns like Morris and expanding the famous floodway near Winnipeg.
A few years ago, Hudson announced that it would cost $90 million to build a dike to protect Peguis.
I’m guessing Manitobans and Canadians pay more than this every year for hotels and flood relief alone.
Speaking of solutions, Odjig talked about these too.
The same year she finished The Great Flood, Odjig made another “partner” mural called The Creation of the World, installing it in the Manitoba Museum.
This painting is about Nanabush re-creating the world after a flood.
That’s a responsibility we all have to share, especially after such injustice.
Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Monday, May 9, 2022 7:01 PM CDT: Corrects spelling of descendants in deck
Updated on Monday, May 9, 2022 8:22 PM CDT: Fixes typos
Updated on Tuesday, May 10, 2022 6:39 AM CDT: Fixes punctuation