OTTAWA — The sting of evacuations due to spring flooding at a First Nation in northern Ontario is hitting harder this year, as government promises for a permanent new location are far from reality.
Starting on Monday, more than 2,500 members of the Kashechewan First Nation were to be flown out from the reserve, located north of Fort Albany, Ont., and sent to other locations across the province.
Over the weekend, the chief and council declared a state of emergency.
Kashechewan has long dealt with spring flooding, said NDP MP Charlie Angus, but community members find the evacuations more difficult this year because they believed the federal government was finally relocating the reserve to higher ground.
“This year, there is a lot of bitterness among people because it is just another broken promise, just another year of flooding and just another year of mass evacuations,” Angus said.
Instead, the community is enduring what Angus calls the “massive trauma” of evacuations and disrupted schooling for children.
He said the plan has been to move forward with building a new community over the span of five to 10 years, adding it simply does not make sense to spend millions on constantly trying to repair a dyke wall, as well on evacuations and addressing flood damage.
“The plan was, ‘Let’s divert that money and start to actually build, piece by piece, a new community,” Angus said.
The federal budget had no money to move ahead with this plan, Angus said.
“This is all just talk,” he said. “Good words and promises from the government will not get this community to safe ground. You need the financial commitment for infrastructure and it is not there.”
Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan’s office said the government is working with Kashechewan to monitor the flooding and support the community as members are moved to other locations.
“We recognize that the threat of flooding during spring break-up is an ongoing reality for communities along the James Bay and Hudson Bay coasts,” it said in a statement.
“The Minister has been in communication with Chief Friday to reiterate the government’s support in the short term, and to reaffirm that the commitment to a long-term relocation plan for Kashechewan has not changed.”
Kashechewan Chief Leo Friday asked O’Regan to visit the First Nation so the minister can listen to community members about their hopes of relocating to higher, safer ground.
The Trudeau government has also faced pressure to move ahead on its plans to relocate the community from its former Indigenous Services minister, Jane Philpott.
Philpott, who was recently removed from the Liberal fold after she was outspoken about her concerns about the SNC-Lavalin controversy, raised her concerns about Kashechewan in the House of Commons last week.
In an interview, Philpott said she has remained in touch with the community, adding it “desperately” wants to be moved and has “huge” support to do so.
“It was built on a flood plain,” she said. “It was something they have been asking for, for an extremely long time. The community has been flooded out 17 times.”
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Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press