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This article was published 5/9/2018 (582 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — One of the First Nations evacuated during the 2011 Interlake flood diversion is suing Ottawa for ending housing stipends before dozens of residents have homes to return to, the Free Press has learned.
"I’ve had people calling me, crying that they and their children were going to be out on the street with no place to live, and they’re trying to get ready for school. That’s no way to treat humans," said Harley Schachter, a lawyer representing Dauphin River First Nation, which has had scores of residents living in Winnipeg since the 2011 flood.
That year, the Assiniboine River flooded at historic levels, putting Winnipeg at risk of a major deluge. Officials diverted the river toward the Interlake, so the flood would affect fewer people.
That meant evacuating 3,000 residents from 18 reserves, with a pledge to replace damaged homes and schools.
"That promise hasn’t been lived up to," Schachter said. "They’re forgetting the sacrifice that Aboriginal people of the Interlake made to save Winnipeg from a catastrophe."
Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) has been issuing regular press releases about progress in the move-in effort for the four most impacted reserves.
In a June update, ISC said that all 237 evacuees were set to return by August, with 54 housing units "ready for occupancy" and another 16 to be ready by July. But Schachter said those 16 houses are behind schedule, while another six were found to be deficient.
ISC wrote Wednesday that 48 houses are "ready for occupancy" — six fewer than the department previously claimed, which it says is because of deficiencies the First Nation reported. "The construction of housing at Dauphin River is being managed by the First Nation," ISC spokeswoman Martine Stevens wrote.
Schachter also said representatives for roughly 45 households also signed forms in recent months, agreeing to have their stipend end in August — which he alleged officials said was mandatory for people collecting cheques. That leaves a total of roughly 70 families without a household.
Until evacuees can move back to the First Nations, Ottawa gives households a monthly stipend ranging from $800 to $3,000, based on family size and location. It’s meant to pay for housing and incidentals, such as groceries.
Schachter said many Dauphin River residents relied on traditional hunting, fishing and plant-based medicines, and now have to buy food instead.
Schachter claimed residents are also "extremely distraught" about being asked to move in with the same people they lived with seven years ago.
Some of the evacuees who arrived in Winnipeg as teenagers have started their own families in the intervening years, but the lawyer said they won’t be allotted a home separate from their parents.
"‘Go couch-surf’ is in effect the message they told people without houses," he said.
Dauphin River Chief John Stagg met with Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott’s deputy on June 15.
Schachter said ISC’s regional head told Stagg days later the housing benefit would continue, without giving an end date. Then on Aug. 23 came a notice that the stipend would end on Aug. 31.
According to minutes of an Aug. 31 court hearing in Winnipeg, Ottawa extended its housing stipend for families that can’t return yet. Schachter claimed this only happened because Dauphin River commissioned a lawyer, after failing to get ISC to consider an extension.
ISC rejected that claim.
"This decision was not related to the legal action initiated by the First Nation," Stevens wrote. It’s unclear when that decision was actually made, and whether ISC informed the evacuees.
While the Canadian Red Cross (CRC) administers the housing stipend, Schachter said all decisions are made by Ottawa, and CRC staff have been supportive and "almost apologetic" in cutting off his clients.
A Federal Court judge in Winnipeg will hear Dauphin River’s request for an injunction on Sept. 26.