Relocation is not in the cards for the flood-ravaged residents of the Kashechewan native reserve.
Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice signed a$200-million deal Monday with Kashechewan Chief Jonathon Solomon that includes a commitment from the Conservative government to rebuild and redevelop the low-lying reserve. But the agreement stops short of promising the northern Ontario community a move to a new village on higher ground.
"It is an agreement that respects the desire expressed by the Kashechewan residents to keep the community in its present location," Prentice said at a press conference in Ottawa.
"The process will be a collaborative and holistic approach to the issues and challenges that have faced the Kashechewan community."
The Conservative government's "multi-faceted, strategic" plan would provide funding to develop skills development, reserve housing, public safety, school and community services.
Speaking to CBC News following his announcement Monday, Prentice said the Conservatives weighed three options:
- A $200-million investment "over the next five to seven years" to reinforce a dike, as well as build better drainage systems to protect low-lying areas from spring flooding.
- A $200-million relocation to Timmins.
- A so-called Site 5 plan to move the reserve to an entirely new location on higher land, which would have cost an estimated $500 million
The first option had the broadest appeal, Prentice said.
"At the end of the day, the chief of council — in consultation with ourselves — decided that reinvesting in the current location was the best solution," he said.
The remote Kashechewan community of about 1,800 Cree First Nations people has been flooded out twice since 2004, and experienced more water woes in 2005, when residents abandoned their homes undera boil-water advisorydue tountreated drinking water.
Fortifying the dike, at a cost of $40 million, is the first priority before the government moves on to other infrastructure and housing investments, Prentice said.
Most residentswant relocation: survey
A consultant who recently interviewed Kashechewan residents found that a majority of the people in the village favoured a relocation to higher ground still within their territory, because they feared they were prone to more flooding in the future.
Asked whether the deal with the Conservatives went against the wishes of the community, Solomon said many residents could not bring themselves to leave their homes and roots once they werefaced with the prospect of relocating.
"It is the wish of my people not to live in absurdity anymore; it is the wish of my people to move forward for a brighter future for their children and their grandchildren," Soloman told reporters on Monday.
He added that the reserve held a non-confidence meeting, but only 50 people showed up — all of them in favour of staying put.
Under a plan proposed by the former Liberal government, the reserve — which sits on a flood plain — was to have been relocated at the $500- million cost. The Liberals estimated the government could rebuild 50 homes every year for a decade.
$500M relocation plan too costly
That would have been too costly, Prentice said, and there was never any cash officially budgeted for such a plan.
Rebecca Friday, a community member, said she and many other residents are confused about what lies ahead, and many residents were losing hope.
Kashechewan residents continue to languish in overcrowded houses surrounded by a faulty protective flood wall, she told the Canadian Press, and "the people are still experiencing rashes" from the water that comes out of their taps.
NDP MP Charlie Angus, whose riding includes the Kashechewan First Nation reserve, ripped the Conservative plan, saying it would be "folly to throw good money after bad."
Repeat floods 'sooner or later'
Angus argued that a fresh start promised earlier was being tragically lost on Monday.
"We had a signed agreement with the government of Canada," Angus told the Canadian Press on Sunday. "The people would have been part of the rebuilding."
Angus had a grim outlook on the future of Kashechewan, adding that "sooner or later, it's going to flood again.
"We need serious commitment of infrastructure, health and economic investment," he said, "but I don't trust Jim Prentice's word on anything about the James Bay coast."
The Kashechewan reserve came into being in 1957, when Ottawa forcibly moved Cree hunters and their families to an isolated plain about 450 kilometres north of Timmins and near the coast of James Bay.