Lake St. Martin evacuee blames Winnipeg for suicides, addictions, depression

Lillian Catcheway just wants to go home, but the life she knew in Lake St. Martin First Nation no longer exists.

Lillian Catcheway wants to go home to a place that no longer exists after 2011 flood

Lillian Catcheway is one of nearly 2,000 people who remain scattered across the province after their home community, Lake St. Martin First Nation, was evacuated five years ago due to flooding. (Aidan Geary)

Lillian Catcheway just wants to go home, but the life she knew in Lake St. Martin First Nation no longer exists.

It was washed away by the flood of 2011 and she was among thousands of people who were scattered around the province when the community, about 225 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, was evacuated.

Efforts to relocate the community are still underway but more than 1,000 community members remain displaced — living in hotels, apartments and rented homes in Winnipeg or on a decommissioned military base near Gypsumville. 

As Catcheway described what the last five years have been like for her and her family in Winnipeg, her eyes filled with tears.

"I hate it. It's sad. I just want to go home," she said. "I thought I'd never leave the reserve."

During spring flooding in 2011, then again after heavy rains in the summer, the provincial government struggled to protect populated areas along the swelling Assiniboine River.

Using the Portage Diversion, a 29-kilometre channel that starts near Portage la Prairie, Man., officials diverted as much Assiniboine River water as they could northward into Lake Manitoba. But the surge in that lake's levels, as well as in lakes connected to it, caused flooding in those areas.

Most of Lake St. Martin First Nation was washed out. 

Floodwater devastated Lake St. Martin First Nation in 2011, forcing mass evacuations.
One of those homes left behind was Catcheway's, built by her dad and later given to her. Catcheway's dad later passed away and she buried him just hours before the evacuations began in 2011.

The ensuing upheaval removed many residents from a traditional hunting and fishing lifestyle and dropped them into an unfamiliar urban setting, which has been confusing for them and hard on their children, Catcheway and other Lake St. Martin evacuees say.

"We're losing our youth to the streets, and a lot of addictions are being picked up right now. We want to get out of this environment [and go] back to our natural roots," Chief Adrian Sinclair said earlier this week.

Catcheway said many youth and some of the adults have become addicted to prescription drugs, prompting child and family services officials to remove children and put them in foster care.

"It was never like that until they moved out here," she said, adding that she has had her own health troubles.

"I'm always sick. I was never sick when I was back home."

It's been five years since Lake St. Martin First Nation members were displaced by floods.
Catcheway has suffered a mild stroke, a heart attack and was recently told by a doctor that her heart is enlarging. The doctor told her it was likely due to the stress she is experiencing.

She said she has also gone through bouts of depression, which is an illness many of her community members have faced, sometimes with tragic outcomes.

At least five people have died by suicide, band officials say. Catcheway's own son tried to kill himself a couple of weeks ago, she said.

As well, 82 people have died of natural causes while in the city, but the community has not been able to mourn them or bury them in traditional ways, as they would have on the reserve.

"I know a lot of people want to go home already. I do, too," Catcheway said.

Sinclair said roads, water and hydro are in place in the reserve's new location, which is not far from its original spot, but on higher ground.

Contracts to build some 150 housing units, a school and administration buildings should go to tender this summer. The goal is to have people begin moving in by fall 2017.