Manitoba First Nations forced to evacuate due to snowstorm power outages

First Nations in Manitoba have begun vacating their homes due to an October snowstorm that has wiped out power for tens of thousands of residents across the southern portion of the province.

Several rural Indigenous communities declared their own 'state of emergency'

Manitoba Hydro tweeted this photo of a downed power line in rural Manitoba on Saturday night as the public utility works to restore power to thousands of residents across the southern portion of the province. (Manitoba Hydro/Twitter)

Several First Nations left in the cold and dark with no power are being forced to flee their communities as the Manitoba government prepares to declare an official state of emergency.

Six rural Indigenous communities in the Interlake region are preparing to vacate on Sunday due to power outages, according to the executive director of the Interlake Reserves Tribal Council.

"Communities are very vulnerable to natural disasters such as these," Karl Zadnik said. "Seventy-two hours is too long to wait to declare a state of emergency. We have to declare right now."

Zadnik said the council had notified provincial and federal authorities at 3:30 p.m. local time 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
  • Lake Manitoba First Nation
  • Little Saskatchewan First Nation
  • Pinaymootang First Nation

"They are all aware of the situation of us needing immediate assistance to take care of our elders first ... as well as our children in our communities due to the power outages in each of our communities and in homes that currently don't have proper heating in place."

Zadnik said the council spent Saturday making plans to relocate the most vulnerable community members due to lack of power and heating.

So far, he said they had booked 200 hotel rooms in the northwest part of Winnipeg and nearby the airport for elders and parents with small children.

Zadnik said about 10 per cent of community members would be leaving out of 17,000 members across the six First Nations his council works with in total.

Later on Saturday afternoon, Premier Brian Pallister announced the provincial government is preparing to declare a province-wide state of emergency during an address to reporters at the Manitoba Legislature.

Pallister said Manitoba Hydro had requested the province declare a state of emergency in order to give the Crown corporation more power and time to repair outages due to a destructive October snowstorm that created havoc across the southern portion of the province.

As provincial, municipal and utility crews are working to clean up debris and restore power to thousands of Manitoba residents, several First Nations are preparing to evacuate vulnerable community members due to lack of heat and power outages. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

"This is our proactive approach for addressing the situation to ensure that if an elder needs certain diabetic medications, or a child hasn't eaten for a few hours, or a baby... that can get very scary," Zadnik said.

"We've found governments to be reactive which of course affects us greatly."

First Nations left in the dark

Jason Small, a spokesperson for Canadian Red Cross, confirmed the national charity will begin assisting some First Nations on Sunday, depending on access and power restoration, as per an agreement with the federal government.

No details could be provided about who or how many people would be affected, he said.

Small said concerned residents of First Nations in Manitoba should contact their leaders to ask about evacuation plans and emergency measures before attempting to leave communities on their own.

Lake St. Martin First Nation lost power on Friday. A band councillor said the community will be evacuating the reserve on Sunday morning and roughly 1,200 people will be sent to Winnipeg.

Lake St. Martin First Nation, one of several First Nations to declare their own state of emergencies on Saturday, will begin relocating community members on Sunday morning in the wake of a severe snowstorm that slammed southern Manitoba. (Facebook)

Chris Traverse, who is on Lake St. Martin's council, told CBC News the Red Cross has advised him that they don't have space in hotels for his members because rooms have all filled up, so people will have to stay in shelters, which he said could mean community centres.

Traverse said people started to worry after the first day without power.

"People are scared. There's elders there that don't have cars, no means of transportation. There's also a lot of community members with young children," he said. "I think people thought it would just be a couple hours."

Some rural residents have been posting concerns about the status of family members, neighbours and friends without phones on social media.

Bruce Owen, a spokesperson for Manitoba Hydro, said 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 wet grounds.

Crews are working around-the-clock to restore power to about 40,000 hydro customers who were still without power as of 11:15 p.m. on Sunday, according to an online update from Manitoba Hydro.

With files from Austin Grabish