5 years on: Lake St. Martin evacuees 'devastated' and displaced
"We're losing our youth to the streets," Chief Adrian Sinclair says.
Five years after flood waters washed out Lake St Martin First Nation, the chief says it's frustrating more than 1,000 community members are still displaced from their homes.
The province diverted flood water bound for Winnipeg to the north in 2011. As a result, most of the First Nation was taken out by the water. And while the community is in the process of rebuilding, Chief Adrian Sinclair says the process has been slow and no community should have to endure this kind of hardship.
"We're tired of living in the city in this environment. We're losing our youth to the streets and a lot of addictions are being picked up right now," he said. "We want to get out of this environment [and go] back to our natural roots."
Sinclair said roads, water and hydro are in place in the reserve's new location near the original community and 150 housing units, a school and administration buildings should go to tender this summer. Band officials are also looking at ways to bring back revenue.
"We're in the process of building our economy — VLTs, gas bar, smoke shop, laundromat, car wash — we're in the process of doing that, looking into other ventures we're going to tap into," he said.
In the meantime, more than 1,000 evacuees have been living in hotels and apartments in Winnipeg since the flood in 2011. Others have been put up by the Manitoba government on a decommissioned military base near Gypsumville.
For 35-year-old John Ross, the 2011 flood meant leaving his roots, his home and his life as a commercial fisherman. The band councillor and father of nine says uprooting has been confusing and hard on his kids.
"It's been devastating," he said. "My oldest is 12 and my youngest is two ... They come to me asking me when are we going home to Lake St. Martin where we lived?"
It's a question Ross has no answer to. "I would say half of them probably see Winnipeg as 'home', which it really isn't."
Ross said what he misses most is fishing, hunting and snowmobiling.
82 deaths, 5 suicides since flood, band says
At last count, the cost of housing evacuees over the last five years has exceeded $122 million.
Sinclair said band revenue has taken a huge hit and financial stress is being felt on the ground level, adding bills are piling up for families while evacuation assistance from the government is nominal.
Since 2011, 82 people have passed away and at least five people have died by suicide, according to band officials. Sinclair said his niece was the first evacuee to take her own life. Ross has not lost any family members but he says he has concerns about fellow evacuees.
"I have friends that are talking about it. It hurts when you have friends talk about it."
Sinclair said he's hopeful working with a new federal and provincial government will help Lake St. Martin residents get back to their community soon. The goal is to have people begin moving to the new community by fall of 2017.