Opening the floodgates on First Nations

First Nations must contend not only with rising waters, but accusations of financial mismanagement
Shaun Best/Reuters

Rivers and creeks are beginning to rise again in Manitoba, and the Peguis First Nation is once again sandbagging homes in preparation for a flood season that could hit as hard as the massive floods of 2011, according to government forecasts. Meanwhile, nearly 200 of its members—evacuated during that unprecedented year of flooding—have yet to return to their homes. They are among 2,000 Aboriginal evacuees from six First Nations who have spent the last two years living in hotels and apartments—at a staggering cost to the federal government of $75 million to date.

Unable to salvage their waterlogged and damaged properties, and without anywhere else to go, thousands of First Nations people are relying on federal disaster-relief funding for housing and food, money distributed by an organization now criticized for financial mismanagement.

The Manitoba Association of Native Firefighters (MANFF) has an ongoing contract with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) to cover hotel and restaurant bills and rent for apartments for all evacuated First Nations. Last month, MANFF faced allegations of failing to pay hotel bills worth millions of dollars and racking up high charges for snacks for evacuees, including $1 million paid to a single restaurant. A mediator has been appointed to settle the dispute over unpaid hotel bills, and Aboriginal Affairs spokeswoman Andrea Richer says the charges for snacks—which at one point reached a reported $60 per person, per day—are “inappropriate and would not be reimbursed.” She added that “a management review is under way to ensure services are being delivered and tax dollars are being used appropriately.”

But oversight of the organization’s finances is a confusing business. Though Aboriginal Affairs hired MANFF, the funds actually come from another federal department. MANFF receives reimbursement for disaster-relief spending from the province of Manitoba, which then seeks reimbursement from Public Safety Canada through the Disaster Financial Assistance program. As long as there are receipts, the province doesn’t question the nature of the claims. Public Safety says it audits all applications for aid, but it can be years after the money was spent (to date, only a quarter of the province’s roughly $400-million claim from 2011—which includes relief funds for all Manitobans—has been paid out). Though Public Safety provides guidelines for disaster relief, they are not so specific as to detail how much is too much to spend on a snack.

A bigger concern for both the province and Aboriginal Affairs, though, is how to get evacuees into permanent homes. Progress has been slow. Just last month, Ottawa and Manitoba finalized a $12-million deal to house 200 evacuees from the Little Saskatchewan reserve. The agreement will see 34 homes—built by the province in 2011 for flood victims from a different reserve but never occupied—moved to higher ground, and another four houses built.

But the deal won’t help the remaining 1,727 evacuees, including those from the Peguis First Nation. And it won’t solve the chronic problem of flooded reserves.

Manitoba’s emergency measures minister, Steve Ashton, admits First Nations people, living on reservations set amid flood-prone lands, bear the brunt of the yearly onslaught of rising waters, their communities often subject to more dire flooding. In the wake of vast damage from the 2011 floods, four First Nations are suing the province in a $950-million class-action lawsuit, claiming it didn’t do enough to protect their homes. The Peguis First Nation has filed its own lawsuit accusing Manitoba of water management practices that worsened the flooding there.

The province argues that the $1 billion it has spent on dams and other flood-proofing infrastructure in the last decade has helped both native and non-native communities, but Ashton says the ultimate responsibility lies with Aboriginal Affairs.

“Without a significant funding commitment from the federal government, there’s really not going to be significant movement on [flood] mitigation,” says Ashton, who planned to meet with the ministers of Aboriginal Affairs and Public Safety to discuss the issue last week. “We’ll just see history repeat itself.”

And the disaster-relief bill, like the water, will keep rising.