May marks 10 years since 4,000 people from four First Nations were given hours notice to pack what they could and flee their homes in Manitoba’s Interlake region, three hours north of Winnipeg.
In 2011, the provincial government made the decision to intentionally flood the area to spare Winnipeg from spring flooding.
What happened next was years living in hotels while communities were rebuilt, bogged down in bureaucratic red tape from two levels of government.
While they waited in limbo, the organization tasked with looking after their needs made headlines for outrageous misspending and predatory behavior involving evacuees.
While a $90-million class action was settled and communities eventually moved to homes built on new ground, the lasting effects on evacuees continues, said Myrle Ballard, a Lake St Martin band member and University of Manitoba assistant professor who specializes in land and water management and studied the flood effect.
“Growing up throughout the years I remember the way water changed the community,” Ballard said. “We grew up in a community that was very sustainable. We had our own livelihoods. People took care of themselves, they made their own living throughout the years. When the first water control structure was built in 1960, 61, from that point on it destroyed our way of life and changed and people started to depend on government for assistance.”
How the water had always flowed through the Interlake region – a water system connecting Manitoba’s two largest lakes – Winnipeg and Manitoba via Lake St Martin – changed. Fishing was different. Flooding changed the land.
“We lost our traditional way of life – to hunt, trap, fish, pick berries and the spiritual uses of the water,” she said.
What burdened residents of Pinaymootang, Little Saskatchewan, Lake St Martin, and Dauphin River First Nations for decades, overcame them with the 2011 flood.
When the government made the decision to divert flood waters their way, it was the end of their communities as they knew them. Evacuees were scattered in hotels across towns and Winnipeg. Some died by suicide. Others by misadventure. Some, Ballard said, of loneliness.
She interviewed elders from the communities and found a common thread in what they felt – heartbreak, despair and loss.
“How do we rebuild, you know, our medicines, our fish, our waters, our habitats,” Mary Stagg of Dauphin River said in her testimonial to Ballard’s research project Minoayawin. “What’s the future for our kids, grand kids, great grand kids?”
“A lot of the elders I talked to cried,” Ballard said. “When they start crying, when they talk about the land it means something is wrong.”
In his testimonial, Derrick Gould of Pinaymootang said the land and waters are forever changed.
“Medicines were lost to flood – they’re not there no more.” He spoke too of it being harder to make money in agriculture now as well as commercial fishing. “The destruction has changed the current so much.”
Rebuilding from the flood finally got underway six years later in 2017 but as of 2021, Dauphin River Chief John Stagg says a third of the evacuees still aren’t home. Some chose to stay in the city while others don’t have homes to return to because the federal government didn’t properly account for growth of the communities in their housing numbers.
Ballard said there should have been a lesson learned in all of this – don’t mess with water flow and consult with the people who’ve lived in the area since long before settlers arrived. But experts like herself and community leaders say that didn’t happen.
“Another outside channel is being proposed going from Lake Manitoba into Lake St. Martin and into Lake Winnipeg,” she said. “The Province of Manitoba is proposing this outlet channel, it’s in its final stages and we’d like to encourage people to speak out against this channel. If it goes through will do so much damage to the people.”
The Interlake Regional Tribal Council is appealing to the Supreme Court to stop the channel’s construction fearing more water woes in the future.
Lake Manitoba First Nation Chief Cornell McLean says communities want to be part of whatever happens next – not told by yet another provincial government that they know what’s best for the area and be at the mercy of those mistakes.
“We’ve never ever said no we didn’t want this outlet channel — we wanted to be involved with the planning – each community – because we have our ancestral lands and our hunting areas and various things like that,” McLean said. “I think it’s important that the government recognize that there needs to be a process that needs to be followed in order to meet their needs as well.”
Manitoba, meanwhile, is fighting in court to move ahead with its flood channel plan.