First Nations across Canada's prairies face annual flooding, such as on this southern Manitoba river, with hundreds forced to evacuate their homes year after year.

First Nation Flood Evacuees Back Home But Must Boil Water

David P. Ball
9/23/12

One month after more than one in 10 residents of James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan had to be evacuated after historic flooding, nearly half the community remains under a boil-water advisory, their cisterns reeking with the stench of dead snakes and other animals.

The remote community northeast of the city of Prince Albert is struggling to repair and replace families' water cisterns and is delivering potable water bottles as a stopgap. It has become the latest of hundreds of First Nations reserves in Canada facing boil-water advisories. For James Smith Cree Nation Health Clinic's nurse manager, it is unclear when those in his community who use cisterns will have running water again.

“That is the million-dollar question,” Rey Lindain told Indian Country Today Media Network. “There are about 150 cisterns that need to be replaced or repaired. It will take some time for them to do that. Eventually the cisterns filled up with water from the floods, so it's contaminated. They even found some dead animals—snakes—in the cisterns. You can imagine the smell of your water. You don't even know those animals are there; you just know the smell of water is not good. That's the condition our people are in.”

On August 9, amidst rising waters that had washed out many of James Smith Cree Nation's roads, roughly 200 of the remote community's 1,703 on-reserve population fled. Today most have returned home. Lindain said the evacuation was called in order to ensure that community members would have access to medical services.

“Nobody's in danger right now,” Lindain said. “That is part of the reason we evacuated some community members before—because of isolation, if emergency vehicles were not able to access them. We did not have any associated health conditions in connection with the flood.”

Today, community members say they are thankful that what could have been a health crisis was averted. Flooding has a sizable impact on First Nations in the prairies. Roughly 230 residents of another Saskatchewan reserve, Cowessess First Nation, were displaced in April by floods.

On its website, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada claims to work with “First Nations affected by flooding to determine their needs, develop work plans and fund preparedness, response and recovery measures. The federal agency said that last year it spent $2.2 million on First Nations flood preparedness in Saskatchewan, including road repairs, snow removal, sandbags, pumps and generators.

James Smith Cree Nation is not the only one affected by flooding. Thousands of First Nations members in the neighboring province of Manitoba remain evacuated from flooding in previous years—2,200 from 2011 alone. Many of those were displaced by the province's attempts to divert floodwaters away from major population centers.

“The people on the ground are working hard with sand-bagging efforts but need help building up roads and berms to protect housing and community infrastructure,” said the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations in an April 21 statement during the Cowessess floods. “In certain communities, some family homes are being evacuated and communities are struggling to ensure safe drinking water for their residents... The flooding crisis demonstrates an urgent need for dedicated federal legislation, capacity and funding for disaster relief on First Nations reserves.”

Meanwhile, in the far eastern Canadian province of New Brunswick, cleanup continues from flooding six months ago, when Tobique First Nation residents were among 500 people—nearly one-third of the local population—evacuated from their homes. Those floods caused $25 million in damage.

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