Manitoba: 17 have committed suicide as Lake St. Martin evacuees remain in limbo
By Victoria Ptashnick, Metro News, Jan 4, 2014
WINNIPEG—Diane Sinclair often has the same nightmare.
In her home at Lake St. Martin First Nation reserve, there is water everywhere. It flows through the cracks of her family’s trailer and washes out the old dirt roads and hunting trails around it.
The water winds through a graveyard where she buried her 20-year-old daughter, Alexis, in the prettiest white dress she could find.
There is always Alexis, her shy, second-oldest, pulling her long, glossy black hair out of the way as she gets ready to tie the noose that will go around her neck.
When Sinclair wakes in the morning there is no relief.
Instead, she realizes she is living her nightmare and her daughter has taken her own life because she couldn’t stand the stress of the big city. In Winnipeg, 300 kilometres from everything they have ever known, the people of Lake St. Martin in southern Manitoba have been made to feel like burdens.
Sinclair is one of more than 1,400 people who were evacuated to Winnipeg from the reserve in the spring of 2011, when the provincial government decided to divert throught their land flood waters that were headed for the capital.
The flood swallowed the land she grew up on, the land her ancestors lived on for decades. Nearly two years later, she and hundreds of other members of the reserve are stuck in limbo, caught in a dispute between the band council and provincial government as to where the reserve will be resurrected.
Chief Adrian Sinclair, who is Diane Sinclair’s brother, says they saved the city of Winnipeg by allowing their community to be destroyed. Now his people tell him they are called “freeloaders” and their elders have been physically assaulted and yelled at.
“And the suicides,” he continues, shaking his head. He swipes at his eyes with his large hands, embarrassed to be crying.
“The first casualty we had was my niece (Alexis). That was really hard. She told me once, she said, ‘Uncle, I want to go home. I don’t want to stay out here.’
Alexis, who had a baby daughter, hanged herself in the garage of the house her mother rented in the wake of the 2011 flood. Her family buried her in a white dress because she had dreamed of getting married.
She was laid to rest in a coffin with a fibreglass casing, so that the water that caused her community so much pain could never touch her again.
Her daughter, Danielle, is being raised by Diane.
“That hurt, putting your niece away, as a leader. That really tore me up inside.”
Since then, Chief Sinclair says 16 other evacuees from Lake St. Martin have committed suicide — and he fears that number will continue to grow.
Sinclair is tired of fighting, but his people say they don’t want him to settle for the land the government bought. He will battle on for a site the band council has found and hope the residents of Lake St. Martin will stay strong in the meantime.
“This is a wicked world, the city. It’s no place for my people,” he says.
“I want to bring my people home.”
But where will home be?
Sinclair says he agreed to a temporary housing solution as long as there were concrete long-term plans to build the reserve in the location the council agreed on.
The province spent millions of dollars on 65 homes on a former Canadian Forces radar base near Gypsumville — about 240 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg — after receiving 157 written applications from Lake St. Martin residents saying they were interested in a home, according to the provincial government.
Manitoba was negotiating with Sinclair when he walked away from the deal in late 2011, saying the government ignored the plans he wanted for the temporary homes. He says he and his community wanted to build interim homes with the help of a private company and was told that would happen.
Sinclair says the government then gave the building contract to someone else without his consent, leaving him and his people with little input into how to build their community.
Ultimately, only 13 families/households chose to live at the radar base site, Sinclair says.
The reason people were no longer interested living there, he says, was because snakes were being found in the homes.
The Manitoba government acknowledged the site was known for annual garter snake migrations, and put snake fencing around the site at the First Nation’s request.
Sitting at his desk at the band council office in Winnipeg, Sinclair looks overwhelmed.
He wants to do right by his people but he doesn’t want them to be stuck. He fears that by accepting the temporary home deal they might be stuck there forever.
“If they can break one promise, why can’t they break bigger ones that will keep us there permanently?” he asks.
Sinclair, elected two years ago, desperately wants to be a good leader for his people but his time as chief so far has been filled with difficulties related to the flooding and evacuation.
“There are times I just want to go away. I don’t want to give up, either. I don’t want to be labelled that I gave up. I’m fighting for the future of my grandchildren, their grandchildren.”
Now, he says his dreams for his grandchildren and future generations to grow up on a reserve without flooding may be dashed, because the provincial government bought land adjacent to the old Lake St. Martin reserve without telling him.
Plans to choose a new reserve went into action about a month after the first evacuation in May 2011, Sinclair said. He and council began touring various sites in the province that could be used for their new reserve.
Sinclair says he looked carefully at all the land presented to him and made it clear that the eight or so parcels of land they toured could be options.
One location — Site 9 — was ideal because it was near a major highway that would make travel to Winnipeg and Thompson easy. Most importantly, he adds, they would never have to worry about flooding again — Site 9’s elevation is more than 30 metres higher than their previous reserve.
Sinclair says he was horrified to learn in December 2011 that the provincial government had bought a parcel of land that month for $1.5 million without the reserve’s consent, violating a constitutional right that says aboriginal people must be consulted on decisions affecting them.
The province says the Lake St. Martin First Nation endorsed the decision.
“The landowners were anxious to sell and had a prospective buyer, so the province moved quickly to ensure the property would be available for the First Nation,” Jean-Marc Prevost, a spokesman for the provincial government. “It remains an option for the First Nation and the federal government to consider.”
Sinclair disagrees, saying the purchased land was simply one option of many presented and that the province knew all along Site 9 was the one they wanted.
The provincial government denies Sinclair’s assertion.
Sinclair says the longer he plans to fight for Site 9, the longer his people will be stranded in limbo in Winnipeg. The land the government bought is little better than their old reserve because its low elevation will leave it vulnerable to continued flooding.
The purchase of the land without the consent of the First Nation has added more animosity between the province and his people, Sinclair says.
The provincial government has been flooding Lake St. Martin for as long as the chief can remember, he says. His sister, Diane, remembers bitter conversations with her grandparents about the water that would invade their reserve every year, causing their homes to grow mould, and ruining their hunting and fishing seasons.
The problems of the Lake St. Martin reserve worsened when the provincial government built the Fairford River Water Control Structure in 1961. It controls the water that comes from Lake Manitoba into Lake St. Martin and eventually empties into Lake Winnipeg.
But the structure made matters worse for the reserve, which was located on low land and had always experienced some spring flooding even before it was built.
Chief Sinclair says the annual influx of water has left homes on the reserve permanently damaged by moisture.
The provincial government says the federal government will cover the expense of sheltering and feeding the evacuees. It has the responsibility for the establishment of reserves and has the final say in what land becomes a reserve.
Diane Sinclair says it’s high time that Ottawa does something about the problems at Lake St. Martin. When the evacuation was ordered after the big flood of 2011, she thought the community’s problems would finally be solved and a new reserve would be created on land that is high and dry.
Chief Sinclair says the federal government hasn’t taken much of an interest in their recent problems and has offered them little help.
“The chief federal representative and the province of Manitoba have been fully engaged with representatives of the First Nation for well over a year in attempting to find both short- and longer-term solutions to the impact of flooding on the community which are acceptable to all parties,” said Jan O’Driscoll.
While they wait for both levels of government to make up their minds, Chief Sinclair is realizing many of his people have no experience living away from their land. Many still fished and hunted, just as their ancestors had for decades.
Now members of the First Nation are being exposed to things they never were before.
“There is so much influence here. A welfare cheque don’t go that far,” Sinclair says.
“On the reserve, there is only one option: you go to the store and back. Here there are so many things: drugs, booze, gambling. It’s really starting to have an effect on people.”
Eugene Sinclair and his first cousin, Chief Sinclair, say they hear stories every day about their children and teenagers not being equipped to deal with the big city. Both men say that Lake St. Martin children and teenagers are falling victim to gangs and sexual violence.
Chief Sinclair says his community’s traditional way of life has now been ruined.
“My people lived off the land, fishing, trapping, selling fence posts. They did a lot of things. Now that is all taken away because of the flood.”
They were like foreigners when they got to Winnipeg, he said, and now they’ve been forced to live on just a few dollars a day.
The evacuees received a notice in November bearing no letterhead, saying the $23 daily allowance they were receiving for food and expenses, other than rent, would fall to $4.
Eugene Sinclair, a diabetic in his 40s, has been living in a hotel for two years. He is now in the Place Louis Riel hotel in downtown Winnipeg, struggling since his benefits have been cut. He is finding it hard to take care of himself and cook proper meals and says he knows several other people getting sick from a lack of proper nutrition.
On the reserve there were plenty of fish to be caught and wildlife to be hunted, but in the city, food doesn’t come cheap.
“I only get four dollars a day. What can you make for four dollars a day?” he asks.
The federal government has been providing the benefit money in line with what would be provided under provincial Emergency Social Services. (
Chief Sinclair says despite the cut in benefit money, he’s standing firm on his refusal to be pressured into moving to the temporary housing, or the land they didn’t want that was bought by the government.
“I’m tired of fighting. I want to go home, I want to take my people home,” Chief Sinclair says, sighing.