Tuesday, September 16, 2014
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Floods forced First Nations into tents and hotels

By Michael Wright, Calgary Herald

Behind Thomas Many Guns’ home, near the bank of the Bow River in the Siksika Nation, is a well-kept lawn.

At least you can tell it was well kept. It hasn’t been cut in a year and there is debris strewn across it, like everywhere else on the property, but it is long past the point where appearances matter.

“He was a super-clean guy,” Many Guns’ daughter-in-law, Alayna Many Guns says, surveying the young forest taking hold in the back yard. “This was an immaculate lawn.”

The house above the lawn is wrecked. A grimy line halfway up its door frame marks the high-water point of the floods that wrecked it. One hundred and seventy-one homes were hit by flood waters on Siksika. Forty-seven of them, zoned “black”, were lost. The rest, classified “red”, can be salvaged but it will take a lot of work.

Thomas Many Guns was among the 47.

“We couldn’t salvage anything,” his daughter-in-law said. “Like traditional stuff. Headdresses, regalia. It was all gone. My husband (and) my kids came and cleaned it up.”

The elder Many Guns is one of about 100 Siksika members still living in hotel rooms in Strathmore a year after the flood. About 1,000 people in total had to be evacuated last June. Some moved in with family, others pitched tents near their homes to watch over them and await the recovery while older or vulnerable members went to hotels. Most, though, were put up in trailers provided by ATCO as a stop-gap measure while more permanent temporary neighbourhoods were built.

“They were supposed to be ready within 30 to 60 days of the flood, however as you know we had a very difficult winter so that delayed a lot of the process,” Siksika tribal manager Romeo Crow Chief said.

The first of two temporary neighbourhoods in Siksika should be ready by the end of June, but the frustration at the delays to date is palpable.

“(We need to) get these temporary neighbourhoods up and running so they can create a stable neighbourhood for these families,” Crow Chief said.

“They’re living in rooms with maybe two beds. They’re not family units. They eat cafeteria style. There’s really no privacy for them as a family.”

Harsh winter aside, there is an acceptance that the going has been slow. The Siksika and Stoney Nakoda Nations signed memorandums of understanding with the provincial government to co-operate on a recovery which would otherwise have had federal oversight. That meant new relationships had to be forged, but exactly why it has been this difficult, no one can say.

“This is two autonomous governments trying to figure out how to work together and sometimes it’s a little bit clunky,” Aboriginal Affairs Minister Frank Oberle said.

“We don’t need to point fingers, what we need to do is figure out how to move forward.”

Crow Chief admitted to frustrations of his own: “I have to be a little bit more patient. I am content that we are moving forward. But fast enough? I don’t think we’re moving fast enough.”

Siksika rebuild project co-ordinator Reynold Medicine Traveller gives an example of the bureaucracy. If he needs to put recommendations or have something recovery-related approved by the tribal council, it can only be done in the two weeks a month the council sits. Whatever negotiations that have to happen with the province on a decision have to be considered, too.

“If it was up to us and we had the authority we’d be working a lot smoother,” Medicine Traveller said.

“It’s bureaucracy and it’s government.”

The province has committed nearly $200 million to First Nations flood recovery but has already said it will have to put up more.

Oberle said the extra need arose when flood-hit homes at Stoney were first inspected. Many properties there were inundated by groundswell flooding — water seeping up from underneath — rather than overland flooding.

“(A) house might not appear to be impacted at all. It really changed our estimates of how many homes would require rebuilding.”

The province is now inspecting every home on the reserve; a job it expects to finish by the end of the month. The extra work is partly behind the need for more money, but not entirely. Much of the housing stock on First Nations land was substandard, and the province has committed to improving it.

“We decided we would build this to code,” Oberle said.

“Say you encounter a house that was previously damaged and now the house is flooded and requires repairs in the basement. What would be the point of repairing the basement but not the hole in the roof?”

Siksika had a housing shortage before the flood. Nearly 800 people lived permanently in the 171 homes evacuated. Twenty-five people lived in one three-bedroom house.

“This is a family,” Medicine Traveller said, “that’s how comfortable they felt.” But, as Crow Chief acknowledges, “That’s a lot of wear and tear in a home.”

Oberle is adamant that finding more money in the province’s coffers will not be a problem. But the cost of the extra work will likely be written off as a loss. The federal government is reimbursing Alberta for flood recovery work through the Disaster Recovery Program but that doesn’t extend to fixing up already rundown houses.

“I can assure Alberta taxpayers we will do everything we can to recover the costs of this disaster,” Oberle said.

The minister sounds bullish when speaking of his hope that nearly 100 per cent of costs will be recoverable.

“We’re hoping it’s something close to that.”

On Siksika the first signs of real progress are showing through. Rebuilding of the 18 homes of the Poor Eagle settlement, in the west of the reserve, is due to start in July. The residents, mostly older, native language-speakers camping out near their homes, will bypass the temporary housing phase.

“When we met with them ... they had a sigh of relief,” Medicine Traveller said.

“They were emotional. They thought (they wouldn’t) be there for three years.”

The Poor Eagle residents, though, like many of those displaced at Siksika, will have to compromise for their new start. Many residents lived near the river. They won’t be able to rebuild there.

Thomas Many Guns will have to move. Several kilometres from his home, close to where Bridge 547 crossed the Bow River until it was washed away last June, is his ancestors’ land.

“That’s where his clan lives,” his daughter-in-law said.

“He bought his own house instead of relying on band housing so he should get to pick where he wants to go.”

Whatever Trevor

Dis is Trevor.

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