Manitoba

'Why has it taken 134 years?': First Nations in Manitoba, Ontario move closer to flood compensation

More than a decade after they began, negotiations on flood claim settlements between several First Nations in southeastern Manitoba and northwestern Ontario and federal and provincial governments appear to be drawing to a close.

Federal, provincial governments have been in negotiations with the 13 First Nations since 2009

Northwest Angle 33 in Lake of the Woods is one of the First Nations affected by flooding caused by dams built in the late 1800s. Negotiations on flood claim settlements for 13 First Nations in the area began in 2009. Several of those claims appear to be coming to a resolution. (Lara Stovern)

More than a decade after they began, negotiations on flood claim settlements between several First Nations in southeastern Manitoba and northwestern Ontario and the federal and provincial governments appear to be drawing to a close.

But some are wondering what those settlements will mean for the First Nations affected — and why it's taken so long to address flooding caused by dams that were built over a century ago.

"Why has it taken 134 years?" asks Chief John Thunder of Buffalo Point First Nation in southeastern Manitoba, one of the reserves affected by the floods.

"The documentation and proof is saturated from Lake of the Woods all the way to Ottawa," he wrote in an email to CBC News.

Negotiations for the claim settlements began in 2009 between the governments of Canada and Ontario and 13 Treaty 3 First Nations near Lake of the Woods, Shoal Lake and the Winnipeg River.

One claim has already been settled (with Rainy River First Nations) and eight more are nearing their final stages, according to the province of Ontario.

The First Nation communities say the Rollerway dam, built in 1887, and the Norman dam, built in 1895 near Kenora, flooded their reserve lands without their consent or compensation.

According to the province of Ontario, the First Nations brought the flooding to the attention of the government of Canada as early as 1887, but no compensation was paid for the damage at that time, and no agreements were put in place to pursue ongoing flooding of the reserve lands.

A provincial website that gives an overview of the Lake of the Woods flooding claims says settlements will include financial compensation for past losses and damages due to flooding of reserve lands as well as an arrangement to address their continued flooding.

"The Ontario Ministry of Indigenous Affairs is looking forward to a successful conclusion to these negotiations," Flavia Mussio, a ministry spokesperson, wrote in an email to CBC News.

"Through tripartite negotiations, consultation with Indigenous communities and public information activities, we believe we can achieve enduring settlements that will be acceptable to all parties."

For Lara Stovern, a former councillor with one of the affected First Nations, the issue is about more than money.

"This is something very personal because this is land that we are attached to. This is where our ancestors lie, and this is where our future generations are going to live," said Stovern, who was a band councillor with Northwest Angle 33 First Nation from 2016 to 2020.

"It's about who we are as people."

Lara Stovern served as a councillor for Northwest Angle 33 First Nation in northwestern Ontario from 2016-2020. (Submitted by Lara Stovern)

Stovern moved to Northwest Angle 33B, a remote reserve on the Angle Inlet in northwestern Ontario — about 65 kilometres southwest of the city of Kenora, and just north of Canada's border with the U.S. — in 2014.

Without road access, the First Nation has had to build and live along its shorelines, which is difficult since the shorelines were eroded by two historic floods.

"The elders talk about how horses could jump from Canada to America across the inlet before the flooding. Now, we can only cross this inlet by boat and it's approximately two miles across," said Stovern.

"That's how much land we lost to erosion as a result of flooding."

Flooding brought major changes

The flooding damaged graves and other sacred sites on the reserve, and also exacerbated Northwest Angle 33B's housing crisis, according to Stovern, as it left less area where the community could build homes.

"Our people originally lived a bit further east down the shoreline but it was too costly to run hydro [power lines] all that way, so we had to develop infrastructure here — which is ironic, considering we were never formally told that we should not be building in these specific areas" when the dams were originally constructed, she said.

Permanent inundation of the First Nations' shorelines created islands within the reserves where none existed before the dams, according to a fact sheet on the province of Ontario's website.

In a 1995 paper, researchers with Grand Council Treaty 3 argued that late 19th-century flooding of reserve lands played a major role in the destruction of resources, such as wild rice and fish, for traditional Anishinaabe economies.

The paper includes a quote by a Canadian official from 1868, who reported that the 19th-century Anishinaabeg had "a sort of government … [and] are sufficiently organized, numerous and warlike, to be dangerous," crediting this to an "abundance of food."

Settlements to provide compensation for those harms may soon become a reality. Proposed settlements with eight of the 12 remaining First Nations with outstanding claims were expected to be ready for approval in 2021, a province of Ontario website says.

The province says it is currently participating in public engagement on settlements with Animakee Wa Zhing 37, Big Grassy River, Naotkamegwanning, Niisaachewan Anishinaabe Nation, Northwest Angle 33, Ojibways of Onigaming, Washagamis Bay and Wauzhushk Onigum Nation.

Four other affected First Nations — Anishinaabeg of Naongashiing, Buffalo Point, Iskatewizaagegan 39 and Shoal Lake 40 — will be part of a future public engagement, the province says.

The First Nations affected by the flooding extend across Lake of the Woods, Shoal Lake and the Winnipeg River. (Province of Ontario)

Once a final settlement has been proposed, the First Nations' members will have the opportunity to say "yes" or "no" to the settlements in a community ratification vote held for each First Nation.

CBC reached out to Dianne Woods, a flood claims negotiator for Ontario's Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, who said she could not comment while negotiations are ongoing.

During her time as a councillor, Stovern says legal teams from the federal and provincial governments visited Northwest Angle 33B, and she asked them why her community was never notified of exactly which areas were subject to flooding.

"I specifically remember the lawyers present looking at each other with slightly bigger eyes," she said. The legal teams acknowledged that there had not been any formal written notification regarding the flood levels, she said.

She's also concerned another major flood in her community is not an "if," but a "when."

"What are we going to do when that happens again?" she said. "We don't have road access, so if we were to see an event that required evacuation, that could be very difficult for us."

Settlements 'life-changing' for communities

According to the province of Ontario, the settlement agreements are one of the many steps toward achieving healing and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, as well as an opportunity to bring economic benefits to the communities.

The province has not publicly disclosed the amounts of the northwestern Ontario settlements, but based on similar claims, they could be significant.

Last July, the Supreme Court of Canada sided with Lac Seul First Nation — a northwestern Ontario community about 70 kilometres northeast of Dryden — in regards to its flood claim, rejecting a proposed $30-million award and sending the matter back to the Federal Court for reassessment.

Stovern says the coming settlement for her community, "much like the other settlements happening in our territory … [is] historic. It's life-changing for many of these communities."

Having lived in communities in the United States that experienced similar rapid economic growth, Stovern hopes that financial training is provided to the First Nations involved once compensation is determined.

"It is a lot of money to flow into a community overnight," she said.

Some Northwest Angle 33 band members have raised concerns on social media about the settlement ratification process, which prompted chief and council to pen a letter to the community last November.

It referred to similar settlements that were derailed or stalled due to lack of trust in leadership and the settlement ratification process.

"As you know, we are nearing a potential resolution of our long outstanding flood claim," the letter said, asking for "the trust and support of our membership" as the claim comes to a resolution.

The letter promised improved consultation with membership, on issues such as how a ratification vote will be conducted, how settlement funds should be managed, and whether some of those funds should be paid out to the membership.

"This claim has taken far too long already to be further delayed. We all want to see it resolved," the letter said.

CBC reached out to Northwest Angle 33 First Nation Chief Darlene Comegan, who was not able to comment prior to publication.

Despite the buzz on social media, Stovern feels that Northwest Angle's band membership is experiencing some relief now that a resolution on the settlement appears to be close.

"It's been a really long process, and this is an opportunity for us to finally close this chapter and move forward as a community."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Özten Shebahkeget was born in Winnipeg and raised in the city’s North End. Her parents are from Girne, Cyprus, and Northwest Angle 33A First Nation. She is currently a reporter with CBC Manitoba.

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