Members of four Manitoba First Nations are one step closer to being compensated for flooding that forced them from their homes back in 2011.
Their lawyers are in court today, providing details of a $90-million settlement agreed to by the Manitoba and federal governments.
“It’s not insignificant. It’s substantial. I can’t give an exact number but we’re not looking at hundreds of dollars; we’re looking at tens of thousands of dollars that could get into the hands of some of those most severely impacted,” says Sabrina Lombardi, a partner with McKenzie Lake Lawyers in London, Ont.
“They’ve been waiting for that opportunity to just put this behind them and just move on. And this settlement along with the other settlements involved, in terms of dealing with rebuilding of infrastructure on reserves and those kinds of things, combined. It’s a way forward for them now, finally, after all this time.”
Clifford Anderson, 59, agrees. A member of the Pinaymootang First Nation, he’s one of the plaintiffs representing the evacuees in the lawsuit.
“This is the first time it’s happened in Manitoba where an individual band member has gone to court for something like this. We’ve always relied on the chief and council to do something for them,” Anderson says.
“Money will never make up for the emotional impact of what the province made us go through at the time. For a lot of us, still dealing with the impact to this day, it’ll help financially to replace some of the costs incurred during and after the flood.”
About 4,000 people from Lake St. Martin, Little Saskatchewan, Dauphin River and Pinaymootang First Nations had to leave their homes after spring floods in 2011.
The Manitoba government diverted water from the swollen Assiniboine River into Lake Manitoba to prevent Winnipeg from being inundated. The surge in water levels resulted in considerable damage to homes, cottages and farmland.
The lawsuit claimed the government was negligent in its operation of a number of water-control structures, including the Shellmouth Dam and the Portage Diversion.
Some people have never been able to return because their homes were destroyed or infested with rodents and mould, and their wells were contaminated.
One of the other plaintiffs, Bertha Travers, is still living in an apartment in Winnipeg.
“Since being evacuated, we have lost many family and friends. Nothing or any amount of money will ever bring back our loved ones. This settlement will mean that at least it will help us out by trying to replace some of our losses,” she says.
Grieving the loss of a sister in a horrific vehicle accident at the time, Travers was one of the last ones to leave her community when the flood began.
“After being in Little Saskatchewan for another two weeks, I decided to leave my beloved home due to water continuing rise. My home was no longer my safe haven,” she recalls.
“It was very difficult to leave and I was having flashbacks of my childhood because I am also a survivor of the residential school era, and to leave again, that really had an adverse affect on me and suffered all the horrible emotions again.”
The group originally filed a $950-million class-action lawsuit, but it was denied in 2014. This much lower lawsuit was certified as a group action last year.
The governments of Manitoba and Canada have not admitted wrongdoing but have agreed to pay $90 million, which includes $6 million in legal fees.
The federal government was named in the suit because of its special relationship with First Nations. Although the action wasn’t certified against the federal government, it is participating in the settlement, Lombardi says.
Once the settlement is court-approved:
- All members of the four First Nations living in Manitoba in 2011 will be included. An estimated 7,600 people are eligible for a basic payment.
- Payments will go directly to individuals, not to First Nations, which are involved in their own lawsuits and negotiations.
- The bulk of the funding will go to those impacted the most — those who were evacuated or remained in their homes under adverse conditions.
- The settlement includes special payments for damaged property and loss of income, to affected families with children born away from home after the evacuation, and to the estates of those who have since passed away.
- The timing and process for making a claim won’t be available until the court approves the settlement, but it will involve an objective, third-party claims administrator.
Lombardo says individuals who were “living adversely” or evacuated for more than three years will receive more money than those whose living conditions were impacted for less. Minors will be paid less than adults.
This settlement erases all claims against the Manitoba Association of Native Firefighters, which was responsible for taking care of evacuees before the Canadian Red Cross took over in 2014. MANFF lost its federal funding amidst accusations about misspent money.
Statistics from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada show that as of Dec. 12, 2017, there were still 1,953 evacuees, the majority from Lake St. Martin First Nation.
Most were living in private apartments, but in cases of special needs or disabilities, some were living in hotels or extended-stay hotels.
As of December 29, 2017, the total cost for 2011 evacuations was approximately $174.6 million. That includes accommodation, per diems and meal allowances for those displaced since the beginning of the evacuations in 2011.
The current monthly expenditure is approximately $1.6 million for all of the First Nation residents who remain evacuated by the 2011 flood.
The life of a flood evacuee
Muriel Woodford, 63, and her family lived in hotels in Gimli and Winnipeg for nearly seven years.
They were among 77 households that moved back to Little Saskatchewan First Nation in November 2017.
She hopes the settlement will be approved soon so people can rebuild their lives. Although they’ve been given new homes on-reserve, she says the community infrastructure can’t handle the influx; many people have been coping with empty water tanks and overflowing septic tanks.
Most are still also dealing with the impacts of living transient lives for too many years.
“We are worse off now,” Woodford says.
“Today we still suffer from all the emotional impact this has had on all of us. I thought our community would be able to have programs in place for everyone, people that are trained to work with the issues we might have … We need trained front-line workers to help with the high addiction rate of drugs and alcohol, depression, stress, loneliness, suicide thoughts.”
Clifford Anderson left his home with just the clothes on his back and a few blankets in 2011. He believed they’d be back in their homes by the end of the summer.
After six months, he bought an RV and set it up on a campground beside the reserve, because he, his wife and two sons wanted to keep their jobs in the community. Anderson was working as the band’s fire chief and was appointed the emergency flood response coordinator.
After another six months, a family member lent them a house to live in, until they got their own house in February 2012.
It took until June 2017 to pay off their RV, which Anderson estimates saved the government thousands of dollars a month in accommodations for their family.
“I never got a dime from the government to pay for my trailer, when I asked the INAC flood response person for some kind of financial help to help with the loan payment on the trailer, the response I got from him was: ‘We can’t pay you for something you own,'” Anderson says.
“I tried to argue the point that I would not have had to buy a trailer if Indian Affairs had done their fiduciary responsibility to protect the reserve, but it fell on deaf government ears. That was one of the reasons my brother and myself decided to go the direction we did [the class action]. If the government had treated us better and also the disaster financial assistance part of the government was more fair, then maybe things would have been different today.”