Flood evacuees can go forward with class-action suit against province, federal AG, court says

A class-action lawsuit against the Government of Manitoba and the attorney general of Canada on behalf of a group of roughly 4,000 Manitoba flood evacuees will go forward after a trio of Manitoba judges certified the suit earlier this week.

4,000 residents of 4 First Nations were forced to leave their homes after severe flooding in 2011

Clifford Anderson stands on the road leading to his brother's and his late mother's flooded houses. He says the bulrushes are an indication the land is still saturated and has become a swamp.

A class-action lawsuit against the Government of Manitoba and the attorney general of Canada on behalf of a group of roughly 4,000 Manitoba flood evacuees will go forward after a trio of Manitoba judges certified the suit earlier this week.

In a unanimous decision delivered Wednesday, three judges from Manitoba's Court of Appeal — the province's highest court — ruled in favour of a group of individuals representing four First Nations that were evacuated following severe flooding in spring of 2011.

The decision officially certifies the class-action suit on behalf of residents of Dauphin River First Nation, Lake St. Martin First Nation, Little Saskatchewan First Nation and Pinaymootang First Nation.

Their effort to bring a $950-million class-action lawsuit against the province was initially denied in 2014, but the request for an appeal was granted in late 2015. After court heard the appeal last September, the Wednesday ruling overturned the initial decision.

The ruling states the first judge erred in his decision and that a class-action suit is a "fair, efficient and manageable" path to advance the claims.

The First Nations were home to around 4,000 people before the flooding, which the plaintiffs say was caused by the province in an effort to save homes and towns further south.

Nearly six years later, hundreds of the evacuees still haven't returned home.

'Finally going to be some justice'

A spokeswoman from Manitoba Justice said the province is reviewing the decision and has not yet determined its next steps.

The lawsuit also names the Manitoba Association of Native Firefighters Inc. as a defendant. MANFF was charged with caring for thousands of First Nations members whose homes and communities were flooded in 2011. That responsibility was later transferred to the Red Cross.

Clifford Anderson, one of the group of 10 plaintiffs representing the evacuees in the lawsuit, said he was thankful to see the court decision.

"It means there's finally going to be some justice," he said. "Somebody's going to be found responsible, or hopefully, maybe it won't have to go to court and they'll come down to the table and start some kind of negotiations."

Anderson left his home on Pinaymootang First Nation with just the clothes on his back and a few blankets in 2011. At the time, he said residents believed they'd be back in their homes by the end of the summer.

"It was devastating to have to leave, especially for the elderly people … they weren't used to moving around, they were used to living there," he said.

"There was lots of social impacts, like separation from other family members because some people had to move to Winnipeg, and there's loss of jobs and loss of income and loss of use of the land, like traditional gardening and stuff like that."

The First Nation now looks like swampland, he said.

"There's cattails and bulrushes growing up right against the houses. The wells are contaminated. The septic fields and tanks have been washed away and the homes now, they're full of mould because they've been sitting in water," he said.

Hope to settle outside of court

The province still has the right to appeal the ruling and bring the case to the Supreme Court of Canada.

One of the evacuees' lawyers, Michael Peerless, said that process could add another year to the proceedings.

Peerless, who works for McKenzie Lake Lawyers in Ontario and specializes in class-action cases, said he hopes the province will choose instead to settle the suit outside of court.

If the province doesn't appeal and the matter goes to trial, Peerless said it could easily be another five or six years before the suit is resolved.

With files from Meagan Fiddler, Aidan Geary and Leslie McLaren