Mary Jane Monias, a councillor with St. Theresa Point First Nation, raised multiple issues with evacuees’ living conditions during last summer’s evacuations.
She said it was culturally difficult to have families dispersed among various hotels, and that elders grappled to eat processed foods when their diet focuses on local game.
Shawn Feely, the Red Cross’ vice-president for Manitoba and Nunavut, said community officials decide who is placed in hotels, and that “it is a high priority to reunite family members during times of evacuations.”
Similarly, officials help craft menus with kitchen staff so they know whether locals are used to sauces, or if they prefer plain food. “It’s important to us that people are getting health and safe food, and food that they are used to, and it takes time,” he said.
Monias said some residents were embarrassed when staff chided them for not flushing toilet paper in the washrooms, because the roughly half of homes that have running water don’t have strong enough sewage-treatment to process toilet paper. It is unclear where the residents placed the toilet paper. Monias said that staff ought to have explained this.
The councillor also complained that registering the 7,000 evacuees meant lines wrapping around shelters, and difficulty communicating with locals who primarily speak Oji-Cree. But Feely said volunteers were allowed to help once community leaders raised the issue.
Evacuees have also complained that the Red Cross would not accept donations from Winnipeggers, and that band staff had to co-ordinate that separately. Feely said the Red Cross avoids donations because they are costly to store, clean and distribute. They instead provide clothing vouchers and believe they had sufficient blankets and diapers for those in need, despite Monias’ claim that both appeared to be running low.
Kildonan-area MP MaryAnn Mihychuk had her own concerns when she visited evacuees at the Winnipeg Soccer Federation complex in her Kildonan riding.
"I had, personally, healthcare workers come up to, asking for a blood-pressure cuff and bandages. And I'm like, 'you think of the Red Cross, you think of First Aid.'"
Mihychuk feels evacuees from northeastern Manitoba got less support than those in British Columbia’s Shuswap region, an issue that some officials say arises from comparatively loose co-ordination from the federal and Manitoba governments.
Previously, Liberal MLA Judy Klassen claimed there were two miscarriages caused by the stressful, makeshift evacuation by boat from one community to another. Klassen lives in the area, and could not be immediately reached Monday. Monias further claimed that "one woman died of complications related to diabetes after being evacuated."
Mihychuk said she heard the local RCMP boat sat unused during the evacuation, indicating “a total communications breakdown.”
She said the Commons committee studying fires on reserves should have a report prepared in the coming weeks, and that federal officials have already taken notice of some of the suggestions from hearings, such as a fire code for reserves, which largely fall outside provincial codes.
Witnesses at the committee have questioned the response to the Island Lake wildfire; locals claim they reported the nearby fire days in advance and tried in vain to get federal or provincial officials to respond before it breached reserve land.
The Red Cross is also reaching out to groups with an Indigenous focus to see if they can help the organization review its protocols. The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is also hosting an emergency-preparedness forum starting Feb. 28, focused on planning for the spring flooding season.
In November, the community’s Chief David McDougall said that hotel staff had claimed they could have cancelled others’ bookings if the province declared a state of emergency, but Manitoba government sources said the Emergency Measures Act wouldn’t apply to rebooking hotel rooms when cots were available.