A tentative deal has been reached between three levels of government to get residents of Lake St. Martin First Nation onto new land, which is just north of the old land.
The document, which sets out the "parameters for a final settlement agreement," was signed Tuesday by the First Nation, the province of Manitoba and the federal government.
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"This is a significant step toward a final settlement that will see the community rebuilt on higher land so families can return home," stated a provincial spokesperson.
The people of Lake St. Martin, located about 255 kilometres north of Winnipeg, have been out of their homes since 2011 because of flooding.
About 1,000 residents have been living in hotels and apartments in Winnipeg for the past three years. Others are in homes in a temporary village set up by the Manitoba government on a decommissioned military radar base.
To date, the cost of supporting evacuees has reached nearly $100 million.
Chief Adrian Sinclair said reaching the deal was a long and difficult process.
"It’s hard to deal with the governments, but we managed," said Sinclair. "There is a deal on the table, and we are very excited to start building the community and take our people back home."
Family displaced for three years
Martha and Hughie Sumner have been displaced from their Lake St. Martin home for more than three years.
"Out here in the city, there’s always problems," said Hughie. "That’s our way of life – to live in the country."
The Sumner family is part of the 1,100 evacuees who still remain out of their homes from the 2011 flood.
Hughie said the news of the tentative deal was encouraging.
"That land was flooded before. It’s going to be flooded again and again because the land is too low," he said.
But fellow evacuee Billy Kakewash said he doesn’t have a lot of optimism about the deal.
"Nothing has been done for us. We’re still sitting here," said Kakewash, who has been staying at the Ashern Hotel. "We should have been sitting in a place called home."
Sumner said most evacuees want to get back to a normal life.
"The majority of the people want to go home. The people want to get houses," he said. "This is something that has to be dealt with at the table 'cause some don't want to go home to the wet lands there."
He worries the new land is just at risk of flooding as the original reserve.
"This land that they're talking about is a wet land. The water is about a foot and a half or a foot down and it could easily come up any time," he said.
Sumner hopes to get more details at a community meeting planned for Thursday.
Agreement to run about $300M
The total deal will run the range of $250 million to $300 million, depending on construction costs.
That includes $72 million for housing, $90 million for infrastructure including a water and sewage plant and another $11 million for administrative buildings.
The deal still must go for a vote before the band members.
Band councillor Christopher Traverse said there’s a major downside to voting against the deal.
"If rejected, it still has to go forward. The community has to vote yes or we settle for half. Half of the settlement if [the community] votes no," said Traverse.
Deal 'a significant step forward,' AANDC says
Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada issued a statement on the deal Wednesday morning.
Officials called the signing of the document a significant step forward, and said, "The Chief Federal Negotiator, Sid Dutchak, will continue working with the leadership of Lake St. Martin First Nation and the province of Manitoba to finalize an agreement."
On Wednesday, Dutchak told CBC News the deal will involve 4,000 acres of Crown land near the current Lake St.Martin First Nation.
If approved by the band, the deal will create the second-largest First Nation in Manitoba, but the final size of the new community won’t be known until officials know how many people will be returning.
Dutchak said it is on higher ground which will mean less of a chance of future flooding and he is optimistic people could start moving back to the community in 2015.
The province and the federal government will share the tab for housing at the new site. There's also a commitment to build schools, band offices, a health centre and other structures like a community centre.
Roads and drainage are also in the agreement, but it's hard to pin those cost numbers down at this point, said Dutchak, who called the agreement unprecedented in that it is rebuilds an entire community.