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This article was published 19/9/2013 (2191 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Not many people would turn down an offer to live for free on the shores of Lake Winnipeg in a three-bedroom vacation home that is advertised for $1,400 a week.
But Edee O'Meara won't be enticed.
What's more, she says, her 24-year-old son and his family have declined an offer to live for free in a three-bedroom condo that rents for $1,100 a week.
The O'Meara families are First Nations flood evacuees who currently live in Misty Lake Lodge in the Gimli area.
The Manitoba Association of Native Fire Fighters, which is charged with co-ordinating help to the evacuees, says the O'Mearas will move whether they like it or not.
"MANFF is assisting the O'Meara families to find new rental accommodations," the authority said in an email to the Free Press.
At the heart of the dispute between the O'Meara family and MANFF is Misty Lake Lodge. That's the former resort where the owner stepped forward to blow the whistle on a pile of hotel bills unpaid by MANFF, and even alleged illegal drug use by MANFF flood co-ordinators on duty at the lodge. The owner, Mike Bruneau, finally got a cheque for more than $2 million earlier this summer.
Now, the regional office of Aboriginal Affairs says the priority is to move evacuees out of hotels and into private rentals.
"I'm very suspicious," said O'Meara. "Are they trying to use me as a pawn to get back at Mike Bruneau? I've witnessed midnight moves all summer here and I feel this is a way to strike back at him because he's done a lot to expose the situation."
Throughout the summer, the lodge reported, MANFF staff pulled up with moving vans and packed up evacuees for new locations. From 150 evacuees at the peak of the 2011 flood, the lodge is down to nine evacuees now.
O'Meara said she's seen the beachfront property she has been offered.
"It's gorgeous. It's absolutely beautiful. It's got a private beach. It's anybody's dream home, but why is this happening all of a sudden? Where have they been for the last 29 months?"
Some 2,000 First Nations residents are still homeless after the 2011 flood and taxpayers have to foot a bill now in excess of $70 million for accommodations and food as officials struggle to come up with a permanent resettlement plan.
If O'Meara accepts the beach house, this would be her 23rd move since she was evacuated from Pinaymootang, a neighbouring Interlake First Nation, in 2011.
She said she feels she has reason to be suspicious of MANFF. Two years ago, the agency sent her a letter to stay away from their offices, after accusing her of throwing papers at the receptionist, which she denied doing.
Threats MANFF will cut her off for sharing her story have made her more determined to speak out, she said.
With all the moves from hotels to rentals, she said her three children haven't attended school in 16 months. They're enrolled now in Gimli and she doesn't want to leave Misty Lake. The beachfront house she's been offered is several kilometres from the lodge where her family currently stays.
"I don't even have it in me to pack. This has put me back into evacuation mode. My first reaction was shock and rage. My next reaction was to protect my children," she said.
The evacuees' plight is the subject of at least a couple of reviews. A federal review this summer was harshly critical of Aboriginal Affairs' management of flood evacuees; another federal review of MANFF is underway.
Bruneau said he hopes O'Meara can stay at Misty Lake; he said his rate is comparable to the weekly rental she's being offered and she's got a three-bedroom chalet at his place.
In Gimli, rentals command high market rates because the town is a resort.
"Our chef rents out her place for $1,000 a weekend. That's what places go for around here," Misty Lake Lodge general manager Retha Dykes said. As for the O'Meara bills at Misty Lake, MANFF has yet to pay any of them, which leaves the lodge to carry the family since they moved there in June, Dykes said.
This spring, Ottawa announced the Canadian Red Cross was conducting an assessment of evacuee needs and would replace MANFF on the file, but to date there has been no indication of when that might happen.
An internal memo about the offer to O'Meara, from Aboriginal Affairs' regional office confirms MANFF's authority to order the move for the O'Meara family.
"Miss O'Meara was registered as a hotel guest, which wasn't approved by MANFF. We are now working with Miss O'Meara on securing private accommodations and a reasonable monthly rate as to ensure her children can maintain their schooling arrangements."
Alexandra is a veteran news reporter who has covered stories for the Winnipeg Free Press since 1987. She held the medical beat for nearly 17 years, and today specializes in coverage of Indigenous-related issues. She is among the most versatile journalists on the paper’s staff.
Updated on Friday, September 20, 2013 at 7:19 AM CDT: Replaces photo