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Flood evacuees one step closer to new home

WINNIPEG - More than 1,000 aboriginal flood evacuees who have been out of their homes since a flood in 2011 devastated their Manitoba community are one step closer to getting a new $100-million reserve.

The residents of the chronically flooded Lake St. Martin First Nation have been dispersed around the province for the past three years. Most are living in hotels or temporary accommodation in Winnipeg.

The band has been negotiating with the federal and provincial government to find a new home on dry land.

Premier Greg Selinger declared a deal was close at hand seven months ago and that prediction finally came true Tuesday when all three sides signed a tentative agreement for a new reserve near the old community.

No one has confirmed how much the agreement is worth. But draft figures from an Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada document dated last year and obtained through Access to Information by The Canadian Press estimate a cost of almost $100 million for construction.

Manitoba Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson said it will cost at least that much for housing, a new school, a nursing station and other infrastructure.

"We're not sending people back to the bush," he said Wednesday. "We're building a brand-new community. That's going to take some time."

The agreement is expected to be voted on by residents of the First Nation in September.

Chief Adrian Sinclair of Lake St. Martin First Nation couldn't be reached for comment.

Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada did not provide anyone to talk about the tentative agreement. In an emailed statement, the department called it "a significant step forward in returning remaining evacuees to their home communities."

Ottawa's chief negotiator, Sid Dutchak, who helped draft the agreement, will continue working with the First Nation and the province to get the deal done.

It has cost almost $100 million to care for the almost 2,000 aboriginal people from across the province who are still out of their homes three years after heavy flooding. It costs the federal government about $1.5 million a month to provide all the evacuees with food and shelter.

The prolonged evacuation and emotional turmoil has been blamed for the suicides and deaths of residents. Aboriginal leaders say children have missed out on school and are being exposed to the dangers of urban life — alcohol, drugs and gangs — and residents are disconnected from each other and their traditional ways.

A Red Cross study of the evacuees found many are on an "emotional roller-coaster" and are adjusting poorly to life in Winnipeg.

Robinson couldn't say when residents of the Lake St. Martin community would finally be able to return home.

"This is a significant step forward — the furthest we've ever been," he said. "It's been frustrating not only for ourselves, but for the people who are directly affected."

Details of the tentative agreement haven't been released, but Robinson said the proposed parcel of land is a mixture of Crown and provincial land near the old reserve. Money for construction of the reserve would likely be placed in a trust and released as construction progresses.

"It's going to be monitored very closely," Robinson said.

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