At least 9 Manitoba First Nations declare states of emergency over snowstorm power outages

People living in First Nations communities in southern Manitoba are declaring their own states of emergency, and some are preparing to leave their homes after a snowstorm left thousands of people without power.

Other First Nations are calling for emergency assistance and are beginning to sandbag

Thousands of Manitoba Hydro customers are still without power after a snowstorm pummelled the southern half of the province. (Submitted by Manitoba Hydro)

People living in First Nations communities in southern Manitoba are declaring their own states of emergency, and some are preparing to leave their homes after a snowstorm left thousands of people without power.

According to the Interlake Reserves Tribal Council, six rural First Nations are preparing to vacate on Sunday due to power outages. Even more are asking for assistance and preparing for the worst.

"Communities are very vulnerable to natural disasters such as these," said Karl Zadnik, the executive director of the council.

Zadnik said the council notified provincial and federal authorities on Saturday afternoon about its decision to declare its own state of emergency in six First Nations: 

  • Peguis First Nation
  • Dauphin River First Nation
  • Kinonjeoshtegon First Nation
  • Little Saskatchewan First Nation
  • Pinaymootang First Nation
  • Lake Manitoba First Nation

Lake St. Martin announced on social media Saturday that it was under a state of emergency. 

Early Sunday, the Assembly of First Nations said in a release that O-Chi-Chak-Ko-sipi and Dakota Tipi First Nations are declaring states of emergency due to power outages and severe weather.

They added that Sandy Bay and Skownan First Nations would likely call for emergency aid soon.

First Nations in flood zones, like Fisher River, are about to begin emergency sandbagging to protect homes and infrastructure, AFN said.

Manitoba regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations Kevin Hart told CBC News this extreme weather event is devastating areas that still have damage from flooding nearly nine years ago. Some people have been without power for more than 48 hours.

"We have an already devastated area in the Interlake as you know from 2010 and '11. There's a lack of infrastructure there from those floods and now with these extreme weather events that we've experienced here in Manitoba a lot of us didn't realize the full extent of the damage until yesterday [Saturday] morning," he said.

"We're looking at First Nations that are already marginalized and we want to ensure the safety of the members of those First Nations."

Bruce Owen from Manitoba Hydro says hundreds of poles and transformers are down. (Submitted by Manitoba Hydro)

'Too long to wait'

Zadnik told CBC News the communities normally need to wait 72 hours before they can declare a state of emergency, but he said that won't do.

"Seventy-two hours is too long to wait to declare a state of emergency. We have to declare right now," Zadnik said.

Hart added: "When the chief and the leadership from the affected First Nations call and say, 'Hey we have to declare an emergency because of this circumstance,' we shouldn't be held by bureaucracy or be told the message that you have to wait 72 hours."

The Southern Chiefs Organization, which represents 34 southern First Nations, says many communities are in dire need.

"We implore Indigenous Services Canada to respond to the needs of these First Nations expeditiously, before the situation gets worse," it said in a release.

Grand Chief Jerry Daniels added: "We cannot have policies in place that delay potential life-saving support to First Nations people in need. Not everyone lives in a major city like Winnipeg or Brandon, so there need to be appropriate measures and policies in place to help the people who need it most in a weather crisis. 

'Severely destroyed' lines

Bruce Owen, a spokesperson for Manitoba Hydro, said the transmission systems that feed Portage la Prairie and the surrounding area, including O-Chi-Chak-Ko-sipi and Dakota Tipi First Nations, among others, are "severely destroyed." 

"We've got hundreds of poles that are either down or are damaged beyond use. They have to be replaced and the line, of course, has to be restructured. What other damages we will only begin to know over the next few hours and days about what work we have ahead of us," he said. 

Meanwhile, Pauingassi First Nation is out of power and Owen said hydro crews will need to helicopter in supplies to make necessary repairs.

The province's electricity provider is unable to estimate how long it will take to restore power to all users given the volume of reports and difficulty in accessing areas due to weather conditions.

In the meantime, Owen is appealing to the public to avoid all unnecessary travel. On Saturday, he said hydro crews were slowed down because of traffic jams.

"We need the co-operation of everybody using the roads, especially in the affected areas. If they see our vehicles, stop, pull over, and let us pass, that way we can get to where we have to be much faster," he said.

Crews are working around-the-clock to restore power to about 36,300 Hydro customers who were still without power as of 7:45 a.m. on Sunday, according to an online update from Manitoba Hydro.

With files from Dana Hatherly and Jillian Taylor