Manitoba reserve going to court to demand Ottawa extend flood evacuee benefits

WINNIPEG — A Manitoba First Nation plans to argue in court that the federal government is cutting off evacuee benefits without providing secure housing more than eight years after flooding forced people to leave their homes.

Lake St. Martin's lawyers are asking Federal Court for an injunction and judicial review into what they say is a decision by Ottawa to cut off benefits for evacuees who still do not have homes in the Indigenous community.

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"The original agreement from the federal government, the previous government, said everything should be fully compensated until all the evacuees are in the reserve or have houses," said Chief Adrian Sinclair.

The First Nation was told benefits would be discontinued at the end of last month, although an extension was given until the end of January, he said.

Indigenous Services Canada would not comment on the matter because it's before the courts. A judge is to hear arguments Jan. 24 and an expedited decision has been requested.

Members of the Lake St. Martin band were forced to leave their homes in 2011, when water was diverted from the Assiniboine River into Lake Manitoba to reduce the risk of flooding in Winnipeg. Water from the lake then flooded the community and caused extensive damage. All housing and infrastructure on the reserve needed to be replaced

A lawsuit by Lake St. Martin and three other First Nations affected by the flooding alleged the province "knowingly and recklessly" caused the disaster." It was settled in 2018 when the federal and Manitoba governments agreed to pay out $90 million to about 7,000 people from the communities.

As Lake St. Martin was rebuilt in a new location at a higher elevation, most members lived in Winnipeg with support from evacuation benefits. As homes and infrastructure were constructed, they returned home and their benefits stopped.

As of November, however, 992 evacuees had still not returned.

Indigenous Services Canada spokeswoman Rola Tfaili said assigning housing on the reserve is the responsibility of its chief and council.

She said 280 housing units were built by the end of last year and 475 residents had returned home. Another 70 units — 30 houses and 40 apartment-style units — are expected to be ready by the end of March.

The government has agreed to continue benefits for evacuees assigned to homes still being built. But Sinclair said there are not enough homes to accommodate the reserve's population increase since the evacuation.

Ottawa expects different families to live together and overcrowd the new homes, the chief said. And it's not accounting for people whose families have expanded. Others have become adults, started their own families, and do not want to move their new households back in with their parents.

If there is not adequate housing and the benefits stop, said the situation for many will be dire, the chief said.

"There will be about 400 evacuees left on the streets here in Winnipeg."

The community has a plan to house everyone, he said, but it involves funding for more homes.

He said Ottawa refuses to acknowledge its initial commitment to ensure everyone has a safe, secure place to live.

"They are not living up to the commitments. They are changing the commitments as we are going forward."

This report by The Canadian Press was first reported Jan. 13, 2020

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