Lake Manitoba flood prevention project flawed, First Nations study suggests

A group of Interlake First Nations in Manitoba are raising concerns about the provincial government’s plans to prevent flooding in the region.

Flooding on lake caused devastation in 2011, 2014

This map shows the north and south basins of Lake St. Martin, connected by a narrow strip of water. The Interlake Reserves Tribal Council says the province's original modelling for the floodwater diversion project was flawed because it treated the lake as one basin. (Submitted by IRTC)

A group of Interlake First Nations in Manitoba are raising concerns about the provincial government's plans to prevent flooding in the region.

A new report is calling into question Manitoba's plan to prevent flooding on Lake Manitoba, which caused devastation during major flood events in 2011 and 2014.

The province plans to cut two channels that would drain Lake Manitoba into Lake St. Martin, and then into Lake Winnipeg. 

The Interlake Reserves Tribal Council (IRTC) accuses the province of ignoring Indigenous knowledge, and says this new report backs up what First Nations knowledge keepers have been saying all along — that the project won't actually protect communities from flooding.

"The original design, treated [Lake St.  Martin] as one basin, right, whereas the knowledge holders, since Day 1, recognize it's actually two basins," said Karl Zadnik, CEO of the IRTC.

The two basins are connected by a "narrows" which acts as a bottleneck, preventing water from flowing from one basin into another, and thus limiting the effectiveness of the network of channels the province wants to build.

Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler says the province is aware of the issue of the narrows, and is in the process of "fine tuning" its design.

"We don't disagree that the narrows are something that we're going to have to engineer to. That was expected, that we were going to have surprises," he said.

As for the charge that the province is ignoring Indigenous knowledge, Schuler said he's never heard that before. 

"We respect what's coming forward," Schuler said, adding that the issue of the narrows was identified in a 2019 report. An engineering firm has been hired to give an opinion on the impact of the narrows, which the province received three weeks ago, Schuler said.

Zadnik said consultation doesn't simply involve the duty to consult, but also the duty to accommodate. The IRTC has been waiting for a year and a half to meet with Schuler, he said. 

"The past indicates that the province would rather do things to us rather than with us, and in true partnership, the spirit of reconciliation and treaty shows that we have to do things together," he said.

The tribal council won an injunction in August 2020 to stop the province from continuing construction on an access road and other work related to the flood outlet project.

In that lawsuit, the First Nations said they have significant concerns that the project will result in flooding and destruction of their land and infrastructure, drinking water, and negatively impact their members who rely on commercial fishing to make a living. 

They argued that the province had failed to adequately consult them and had not properly accommodated their treaty and land-based rights by issuing permits for the work without notifying them.

Members of Lake St. Martin First Nation were forced to leave their homes in 2011, when water was diverted from the Assiniboine River into Lake Manitoba to reduce the risk of flooding in Winnipeg. Water from the lake then flooded the community and caused extensive damage. All housing and infrastructure on the reserve needed to be replaced.

A lawsuit by Lake St. Martin and three other First Nations affected by the flooding alleged the province "knowingly and recklessly" caused the disaster. It was settled in 2018 when the federal and Manitoba governments agreed to pay out $90 million to about 7,000 people from the communities.

The goal of floodwater diversion project is to make sure Lake Manitoba never reaches that point again, Schuler said.

With files from Jessica Piche, Cameron MacLean, Sarah Petz and Kelly Geraldine Malone