Death toll in flooded-out Manitoba First Nation hits 92 as evacuees wait to return home

A CBC News investigation has found at least 92 Lake St. Martin community members have died since 2011 when the First Nation was displaced from its reserve.

Many residents died from illnesses the community believes are related to stress and lifestyle changes

Lake St. Martin community member Edee O'Meara with Angus Richard, an elder who never left the reserve even after an evacuation order came down in 2011. This May marks six years since the community flooded. Those that were evacuated have never returned home. (Austin Grabish/CBC)
Diane Sinclair wants to give her daughter a proper resting place, but it's a wish that seems impossible for the Lake St. Martin mother.
"It's like a sponge," says Sinclair of the saturated earth where her daughter is buried without a headstone in a cemetery in what's left of Lake St. Martin. Alexis Sinclair, 21, died by suicide on May 14, 2011, just over a week after her community was evacuated due to flood waters washing out most of the First Nation.
Alexis Sinclair was the first Lake St. Martin community member to die after the 2011 flood. (Facebook)

The young mother was the first to die after the evacuation but not the last. CBC News has learned that at least 92 community members have died in the six years since the community was displaced by the flood in May of 2011.

From 2012 until 2016, the rate of deaths in Lake St. Martin has been 11 per 1,000 — several percentage points higher than Manitoba's average and a couple percentage points above the Interlake-Eastern area rate.

A number of residents were killed or died by suicide, but the majority have died from illnesses that many evacuees believe is stress-related and caused by the dramatic change in diet the community had to make when it relocated to Winnipeg.

'Grasping at straws'

Discussions about returning home in a coffin are commonplace among those displaced from this community, which has a registered on-reserve population of nearly 1,400, according to 2012 figures from the federal Aboriginal Affairs department.

Lake St. Martin Chief Adrian Sinclair, who is Diane Sinclair's brother, says his community is in a state of emergency and he doesn't feel the provincial or the federal government have recognized that.

"It was in a state of emergency from Day 1 and I don't see why the government didn't see that." The community regularly holds silent auctions to raise funds for family members stuck with funeral fees for dead loved ones. "Our kids are exposed to death. They know it's part of living in the community and it's expected," says Margaret Pollock, a Lake St. Martin elder.

Prior to the 2011 evacuation, a handful of people would die every year but not from the illness, suicide and homicide that's plagued their community since evacuation, other elders say. "We're grasping at straws right now," says Alex Ryle, a Lake St. Martin elder.
Children from Lake St. Martin cut out photos inside a Winnipeg hotel ballroom at a spring 2016 funeral for an elder. (Austin Grabish/CBC)
For Susan Ryle-Munroe, the despair in her family won't stop.

Her brother, Silas Ryle, died in 2011 after the evacuation.

He was working in Lake St. Martin building dikes trying to get the community back home when he collapsed from sudden illness. Ryle-Munroe's sister, Ruth Beardy, was the next to pass away. Exactly a year after Ryle's death, she died from cancer in a downtown Winnipeg hotel — a place the family now resents. Ryle-Munroe says after her sister died, her family had to wait several hours to have her body removed from her hotel room.

"They didn't want her to die there," she says.

An undertaker was told by staff to wait until 4 a.m. to remove the body, she says.

"We were just appalled. Come on. Just have some dignity, a little bit of feeling," she says.

"That day I cried and I cried."

Her sister had wanted to return home to die, says Ryle-Munroe, but doctors told her she wasn't strong enough for the three-hour trek to Lake St. Martin.

Before the evacuation of the First Nation, death was easier to handle, says Ryle-Munroe. During a person's final days, the whole community came together, with individuals taking turns to care for the person.

"It's a process that's almost easy letting go," she says. She still hasn't let go of her sister's death.

The elder who never left

Angus Richard has no plans to leave the old Lake St. Martin (Austin Grabish/CBC)

While the majority of flood evacuees wait in Winnipeg apartments and hotels to return home, it's a little known fact that there are a few people that never left Lake St. Martin. Angus Richard, 82, was born here and has no plans to leave. From the driveway of his home, you wouldn't know a flood almost destroyed his property.

His yard is neatly kept and his home is still intact. As you get closer to his house, you can smell a fire burning in his backyard.
Clothes hang outside Angus Richard's home to dry. (Austin Grabish/CBC)
A sign with the family name greets the few guests that stop by these days.
In the summer, red berries hang from trees in his yard and jeans spin outside in a vintage Speed Queen washing machine while T-shirts dry on a clothesline.
A generator powers this washing machine. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

There is no electricity here since it was cut during the evacuation.

Nowadays, a gas generator keeps the washing machine running and batteries power the radio inside playing NCI FM, an Aboriginal radio station. Snowshoes and fox furs line his living room walls.

Richard, who's known to friends and most of his community as Paul, speaks Saulteaux, a dialect of the Ojibwe language. "I like it here," he says in English.

But life has changed for Richard.

He shakes his head when asked if he's lonely. His son, Bernard, lives with him to keep him company, but he misses the Lake St. Martin people.

"I got no people today, just all in Winnipeg," he says. Richard remembers when the evacuation order came down in May of 2011.

"Boy, lots of water. Lots of water," he mumbles.

Graveyard saturated

Water continues to haunt many in this Anishinaabe community.

Near Richard's home, the gravel road to the Lake St. Martin graveyard is falling apart and water spills over it in the spring.

It's common for water to come up after a new grave is dug. "Sometimes they have to pump it out," says Sinclair.

The thought her daughter could be in a pool of water underground is one she can't escape. "That's my very very worst thought," she says.

The Lake St. Martin graveyard is saturated with water and running out of room. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Conrad Anderson, the funeral director at Anderson Family Funeral Home, says the Lake St. Martin graveyard is saturated.

The funeral home based in the community of Ashern has buried dozens of evacuees since 2011.

"It's getting to the point where we're hearing families are more comfortable burying their loved ones in Winnipeg instead of going back to Lake St. Martin," Anderson says.

In Winnipeg, a new generation of Lake St. Martin children are growing up who've never seen their home reserve. Sinclair is raising her daughter's little girl, Danielle, who is now seven.

Though Danielle is flourishing, her curiosity leads to tough questions for the family.

"She used to hold up her hands mid-air in the middle of the night and then I'd ask her, 'What's wrong, baby?' And she says, 'Mommy. Mommy's trying to leave me again.' And that's when the grieving starts again," says Sinclair. 

"I tell her, 'Mom's gone to heaven. She's looking down. She's watching over us.' … I always try and shelter her." Sinclair remembers her daughter as a shy, kind-hearted person who loved make others smile.

Community members are now being buried wherever there is room, including on the front step of this church at the burial site. (Austin Grabish/CBC)
Around 11 p.m. on the night before Alexis took her own life, Sinclair says she spoke to her daughter. Sinclair was working on the reserve as a flood co-ordinator while Alexis was already in Winnipeg. "I said 'OK my girl, I'll see you tomorrow, I'll be back.'" But Sinclair never saw Alexis again.

Her 13-year-old brother would find her hanging in the garage of the Winnipeg rental home where the two were staying. Her brother tried to call for help but it was too late.

"He didn't even want to let go of her because he was holding her life," says Sinclair. She says her daughter's death blindsided her. "I was just shocked," says Sinclair.

"The only thing she was sad about was leaving the reserve. She said 'Mom, I want to go home. I want to take baby home. I don't like it in Winnipeg.'"

Sinclair also lost her mom to illness and then her brother to homicide in the same year.

"The grieving part, it never stops," she says.

​'Garbage food'

Many flood evacuees say that since moving to Winnipeg, the food in the city has also made them sick. Within months of relocating to the city, Lake St. Martin elder Margaret Pollock noticed a dramatic change in her lifestyle.

"I was close to 300 pounds, extremely overweight, but I was just eating restaurant and junk food.

It was so easily accessible," she says. Pollock, who lived in a hotel for five years from the spring of 2011 until early 2016, says the dramatic change in lifestyle led her to become depressed.

Margaret Traverse feels forgotten by the government. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

"I couldn't find a way out of the hotel room," she says. Another elder, Margaret Traverse, says city food has made her sick, too.

"Boy, is it ever hot, spicy. We don't like that," the elder says. Traverse's granddaughter, Ardell Woodhouse, points to the pizza eaten by Traverse.

"We call it garbage food," she says. Traverse misses the tastes of home. She regularly gets fish from back home delivered to her hotel and sometimes she returns to the reserve to get rhubarb still growing in her yard.

Many of those displaced say that since evacuation, it's also been hard to put food on the table.

Cutbacks in 2012 left some people who lived in apartments or rental homes receiving a daily incidental allowance of $4.25 a day per person, with children allocated a mere $3.20. There is no food allowance unless an evacuee is living in a hotel.

'Can't even afford a Happy Meal'

George Beardy uses that money for food, but says it's hardly enough to keep him full. "Can't even afford a Happy Meal," he says, while at a funeral for another community member in a Winnipeg hotel.

"You can't even buy a jug of milk. It's over $5," adds Winnie Traverse, 67. "What are we going to buy from $4 a day?"

It was easier to live when evacuees were given $24 per day for food, says Traverse, but the government cut that off in 2012 after CBC News revealed the Manitoba Association of Native Firefighters paid more than $1 million for snacks over an eight-month period for evacuees.

A government spokeswoman said the current $4.25 is not meant for food as there are cooking facilities in apartments and houses evacuees are living in.

But that statement doesn't sit well with Traverse, who blames much of her illness, including a heart attack, on stress from living in Winnipeg.

"Racism. That's what I'd say because they know that we're natives," she says.

Traverse says as a fisherwoman back home, she and her husband made a good income and always had food on the table.

'Don't take anything, just go'

Margaret Traverse remembers when the evacuation order came down in May 2011. It was billed as more of a temporary stay in Winnipeg, the 78-year-old recalls.

"They told me, 'You're going to be evacuated. Just take a few things.' So I pack my little bag, put a little bit of my things in there," says Traverse.

Ernie Spence, another evacuee, recalls being told the same thing.

"They made us think we were going to be gone maybe a few days or two weeks, three weeks. People are happy. Don't take anything just go you're going to Winnipeg, like a big trip for them," says Spence.

"They're cramming into this five-star bus."
Ernie Spence is still living in a Winnipeg hotel almost six years after being flooded out of Lake St. Martin. (Austin Grabish/CBC)
Evacuees quickly found out the stay wasn't temporary. Traverse and Spence both lost their homes.

"I lost everything, everything that I left back home," says Traverse.

The new Lake St. Martin

Construction crews are working to build a new reserve on land adjacent to the former Lake St. Martin community. Chief Adrian Sinclair says the new reserve will have VLTs, a gas bar and its own funeral home.

The band is also making plans for a memorial to honour every community member who's died since the 2011 flood, he says.

The chief knows some community members are critical of his leadership and his plan to rebuild Lake St. Martin.

The chief was the recent subject of a federal investigation into allegations of vote buying and corruption during the 2016 Lake St. Martin election.

CBC obtained a 90-page report about the investigation, which concluded ballots were sold for as much as $300 each by Sinclair and two band councillors.

Sinclair disputed the report's findings and insisted he did nothing wrong and was elected fairly. Sinclair is quick to remind his critics of the current plight of the Lake St. Martin people.

"The longer we stay here in the city, the more casualties we're going to be facing," he says.

"The elders they stress out about their children going back home, some of them pass on without even knowing that they're going to go back home."

Lake St. Martin Chief Adrian Sinclair says the new reserve should be ready for fall of 2017. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

By the fall of 2017, the First Nation expects to have 150 brand new homes and a temporary band office built on the reserve, says Sinclair.

Crews have already completed construction of a lagoon and water treatment plant. The band recently hailed plans for a new school on the reserve as historic, since this will be the community's first school serving children from Kindergarten to Grade 12.

"It's starting to form as a community already," he says.
Floor plans for a new school in the new Lake St. Martin (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Federal documents obtained by CBC News through an access-to-information request warn the risk of another serious flood in the area could stall construction even further.

Some community members worry the new reserve is on land that is no better than what they left behind in 2011.

Edee O'Meara revisited what's left of the old Lake St. Martin last summer.

"From my backyard, you could pretty much literally see where the new reserve is being built," says O'Meara.

"The land around there is surrounded by swamp marshlands."

O'Meara and others worry the new Lake St. Martin will resemble more of a densely-packed townsite with homes in a subdivision than their old reserve, which had houses scattered throughout.

"It seems to be like an urban setting and that's completely foreign to us," says O'Meara.
Crews are working to build a new Lake St. Martin with 150 homes slated to go on the new reserve by fall 2017. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Since being displaced in Winnipeg, another urban setting, many Lake St. Martin families have been broken apart, she says.

"It's broken up our families. It's broken up our community spirits, our sense of community and our community network."

These days, Diane Sinclair works at the Lake St. Martin band office in Winnipeg processing applications to help her fellow Lake St. Martin community members return home.

She plans to move back with her granddaughter, Danielle.

But thoughts of the return bring mixed feelings for her.

"I'm glad that we're going home … even though a part of my family's missing," she says.

Still, she says, "it'll never be the same."

Do you have a tip about this story? Get in touch with the CBC's Austin Grabish by email.