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Assistant fire chief of Saint-Paul-de-l'Ile-aux-Noix Jean Yves Perras, left, takes Defence Minister Peter MacKay on a tour of Saint-Blaise-sur-Richelieu, Que. (Peter McCabe/Canadian Press)

Defence Minister Peter MacKay visited Quebec's flood zone along the Richelieu River on Wednesday, as residents brace for a long cleanup, which they will have to do without any help from the military.

Wearing hip waders, MacKay spent some time in one of the hardest-hit towns – Saint-Blaise-sur-Richelieu – as residents in the flood region vented their frustration at the federal government's handling of the crisis.

Flood waters are receding after a tough weather weekend that included wind gusts and steady rain in the region southwest of Montreal.

MacKay expressed sadness at the sight of flooded streets and farmland, and he promised that some 500 soldiers on site would not be withdrawn for at least a few days.

He would not commit, however, to having the troops stick around to help with the cleanup. MacKay explained that the federal role is protecting people during the emergency phase of the disaster.

"It's simply terrible," MacKay said in a statement to reporters, after helping to place a few sandbags.

"I understand the sense of urgency in the city and the region."

More than 3,000 homes are flooded, and 1,000 people displaced as high water levels persisted throughout most of May.

MacKay said he was proud of the work done by Canadian soldiers, who helped protect property and evacuate some residents. He said their efforts saved homes and farmland.

Residents wonder about Ottawa's slow response

Local residents and leaders were more critical about federal help.

They say it's not so much that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has visited other disaster sites, in Manitoba and Alberta, and bypassed this one.

'I guess [Harper] doesn't feel welcome. Maybe he's being told it's not that bad and we're dealing with it because we've lived all our lives on the river and maybe we're so tired that we're not making enough noise.' —Kathleen Lord, resident, St-Blaise-sur-Richelieu

The most common complaint from residents is an alleged comedy of errors involving the military: They say the Canadian Forces arrived too late, appeared unprepared once they arrived, began withdrawing too early and, now, are failing to help with the cleanup.

Some people are even voicing a suspicion of the utmost cynicism: on call-in shows and on the lips of local residents, there are whispers that perhaps Quebecers are being punished for how they voted on May 2.

"We didn't vote Conservative in the last election and never do," said Kathleen Lord, a 44-year-old resident of Saint-Blaise-sur-Richelieu. "That's what most people feel like actually.

"I guess [Harper] doesn't feel welcome. Maybe he's being told it's not that bad and we're dealing with it because we've lived all our lives on the river and maybe we're so tired that we're not making enough noise."

Lord said soldiers patrolled her street in assault vehicles, but did little else.

"We needed physical help, manpower, and we did not get that," she said.

One local mayor said residents had been struggling for weeks and were tired. He said he couldn't understand why the federal government wouldn't let soldiers stay to help clean up.

"It's been a month," said Mayor Jacques Desmarais of Saint-Blaise-sur-Richelieu. "People are exhausted and there's still work to do — cleaning, inspections and different types of activities.

"I think it's important enough that the military stay here to help people through."

Military cleanup would compete with private sector, minister says

The Quebec government has released an exchange of letters with Ottawa, where Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said the military would not help with the cleanup.

Toews suggested that the military's role includes placing sandbags to protect property, but not picking up sandbags to clean up.

Toews also explained that the military should not stay behind because, if it performed any cleanup work, it would be competing with the private sector.

He wrote that he and MacKay had agreed on the subject — and, as a result, he never even transferred Quebec's request to the defence minister.

NDP Leader Jack Layton said he expected more.

The NDP, which now holds seats in the area, is urging the prime minister to step up his efforts in the region and make an appearance.

Area residents are not only dealing with short-term evacuation concerns and protecting their homes, but they also fear they will never be compensated for the things they've lost.

Layton said the government needs to be sending clearer messages to reassure these people.

"I'd say it's a very reticent approach on the part of the Harper government," Layton said in Ottawa. "It's absolutely critical to show people that they have that support. We want to ask the government to be there for them."

With files from The Canadian Press