Thursday, September 18, 2014
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Answer First Nations protest

By: Editorial

Winnipeg Free Press

Steve Ashton, minister of emergency measures and flood fighting, was perfectly resolute in his warning to the protesters trying to halt the opening of the emergency outlet from Lake St. Martin. Get out of the way or we might call in the cops, Mr. Ashton said. The channel from the lake, past Dauphin River First Nation and into Lake Winnipeg, is vital to keep water moving to relieve pressure from Lake Manitoba.

Draining down Lake St. Martin, a middleman of sorts in the lengthy diversion of Assiniboine River water, will not immediately help cottagers, residents and farmers at Lake Manitoba. But to keep Lake St. Martin at a manageable level -- and this was Mr. Ashton's point -- the emergency outlet must be opened, especially because more water will eventually come as the flood of 2014 snakes its way through the flood-control system.

Lake St. Martin is surrounded by First Nations, and their residents were evacuated in 2011, most of whom are still in "temporary" lodgings three years later, or resettled in a contentious negotiation that involves a whole new community. But the lands around the lake are still reserve lands; the interests of band members, and those of the First Nations nearby, must be protected. After an extended wet cycle, the area is saturated, a condition exacerbated by the use of the Fairford control structure, connecting Lake Manitoba to Lake St. Martin. Homes are mouldy and livelihoods disrupted.

But the protesters, including members of Dauphin River and fishers of neighbouring First Nations, have legitimate grievances. Debris and the murky water, no doubt carrying run-off pollutants, is streaming from the channel hastily constructed in 2011 into the Dauphin River. That, the First Nations say, upsets the environment and the fishery there.

Dauphin River band members were evacuated in 2011, and many remain off their land. The province says fishers were compensated for the 2011 flood, which itself -- not the emergency outlet -- pushed river levels up. This does not address the complaint of fishers that Sturgeon Bay, at the river's mouth, has been affected by the channel, along with their nets and their catch. And now, they say, 2014's flood will hurt some more.

Mr. Ashton says he may take court action, for an injunction to get the protesters out of the way. But calling in the RCMP -- the hammer of a court order -- to remove protesters is risky, as previous hostilities over land claims have shown in Canada.

This dispute needs a federal presence: Dauphin River is a snapshot of how badly Ottawa has handled its responsibility to First Nations. The federal government, by its own studies, has been shown remiss and negligent in protecting the interests of First Nations people in floods. Reserve lands, chosen more than 100 years ago when treaties were signed, have been shown to be poorly chosen, too low or in the way of water in this extended wet cycle.

That was underscored in post-2011 reviews of Manitoba's flood fighting, which found First Nations reserves were hard hit by land-use policies and practices of municipalities. Those municipalities, it was advised, had to work together to co-ordinate good flood control through policies across watersheds, rather than rules serving artificial rural boundaries that beggared their neighbours -- First Nations were most vulnerable.

Mr. Ashton makes the necessary point opening the emergency channel into the Dauphin River is the only means of protecting the area around Lake St. Martin, which will eventually get the Assiniboine River's floodwaters, yet again.

But some three years after the last inundation of Lake Manitoba, the bands affected are still seeking settlement and recognition their livelihoods have been disrupted in the continuing upheaval from 2011.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs supports their blockade, arguing there has been inadequate negotiation and accommodation for First Nations interests. But, the AMC must concede use of the emergency outlet is required to relieve high water on Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin.

Extraordinary conditions call for extraordinary actions. That should trigger accommodation, in the aftermath, of First Nation interests. Ottawa must step in to start in good-faith negotiations with the First Nations near Lake St. Martin. This year's surprise summer flood shows delays that end in protracted court fights only compound misery, financial cost and disruption of lives.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

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