By Morgan O’Neal
At the Red Earth First Nation about 300 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon the Carrot River as well as rivers originating in the Pasquia Hills peaked on Sunday, water levels dropping more than five centimetres, but with almost 700 Red Earth residents in Saskatoon or Prince Albert, the streets of the First Nation were deserted Monday afternoon. While river water did not reach homes or any other building on Red Earth, some were still at risk. Water saturated the muskeg and could still seep into basements from underground, says Dearld Whitecap, a co-ordinator for emergency operations.
Red Earth vice-chief Elton Head had been cautious about deciding when to return, but said it could be as early as Wednesday, and as it turned out everything is in place for the nearly 700 residents of the Red Earth First Nation displaced by flood waters to return home this morning, Wednesday, April 25. “They will be heading home (today) barring any unforeseen circumstances,” said Richard Kent, spokesperson for the Prince Albert Grand Council. The decision to go back was made by Red Earth First Nation Chief Miller Nawayakas, and was based on recommendations from a number of groups, including the Saskatchewan Watershed Authority.
Although water levels are dropping at Red Earth, Kent said some dikes are beginning to thaw, allowing water to spurt through. He said 21 homes took on water during the flood, and residents at the First Nation continue to pump water and sandbag affected areas.Last year during a flood, evacuees from the reserve were away from home for 12 days. A return today would mark six days away this time.
Meanwhile, the Yellow Quill First Nation is cleaning up debris after flood waters caused some problems in the community. But the damage this year is nothing compared to last year, says Hector Whitehead, housing and public works director for the First Nation, located about 250 kilometres east of Saskatoon. “There were 34 units that were affected last spring,” said Whitehead. Snow in the bush was removed this winter so when it melted, it wouldn’t affect the community as severely, he said.
Whitehead said was told by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada officials that the flood at Yellow Quill last year was worse than the one at Red Earth. The First Nation didn’t publicize it, though, he said. “We just kind of did what we thought should be taking place to try to resolve the problem without any outside help,” he said. Whitehead said only three or four houses were affected in this year’s runoff.
This week, an assessment is expected to be released from the Environment and Agriculture departments on soil quality in the areas of Waldsea Lake, Deadmoose Lake and Hougton Lake Area farmers are concerned the water spilling from these three alkaline lakes will contaminate agricultural land.
Waters in the Rosthern area are under control, although the RM of Rosthern declared a state of emergency Monday. “Quite honestly it has dropped off our radar,” Johnson said. The same is true for Beardy’s Okemasis First Nation. Jackfish Lake, north of North Battleford, is expected to rise another 30 centimetres but will not reach its record high despite earlier flood advisories indicating it may do so. “We will have to check the safety of the situation before we can confirm this,” he said.
Red Earth’s second evacuation in as many years should be seen as a “wake-up call” for the government to seriously look at the living conditions of First Nations people in Canada, says Head. “As a community leader, I am frustrated with the land that was given to us. It’s not suitable for development, it’s not good for hunting,” he said. “The federal government has been sending us memos that they will be there for us, but we are more or less still waiting.”
In December, Red Earth residents told community leaders to talk to the government about acquiring better quality land. Another assembly will likely be called once everyone returns, according to Head. And he’s hoping his people won’t be forced to evacuate for the third year in a row. If lack of money is the excuse then some suggest that the federal Conservative government’s fixation on Quebec is keeping it from living up to its campaign promise on equalization, provincial Finance Minister Andrew Thomson said Monday. The fiscal imbalance between provincial and federal governments tops the agenda at a two-day meeting between provincial finance ministers and their federal counterpart, Jim Flaherty, which began Monday in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
Saskatchewan’s NDP government wants the Tory government to keep its campaign promise to exclude nonrenewable resource revenues from the equalization formula, which would mean around $900 million in extra federal cash for the province annually. While Flaherty at one point gave assurances that exclusion would happen, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has several times said it was simply a “preference” of the government and no decision had been made.
Thomson chalks up the change to concern in Quebec about how the promise on non-renewable resources would impact that province’s share of the equalization pot. “The problem we have is that the Conservatives are still in campaign mode. They believe they own the West and they’re trying to court Quebec and that is what’s complicating this,” he said in a telephone interview from Ontario. Flaherty said over the weekend there would be no significant increase in federal money going to the provinces to deal with the fiscal imbalance, pointing out that eight of the 10 provinces are running surpluses.
While Thomson said it won’t take great deal more money to fix the fiscal imbalance, he didn’t like the suggestion that provinces have more leeway because of the GST cut. “The last time we heard anything as ridiculous as that was from the Trudeau government in the ‘70s where they transferred so-called tax points. If Stephen Harper actually believes that’s what should happen, that we should go around and increase provincial sales taxes, I would encourage him to come to any community in Saskatchewan and say it,” he said.
Meanwhile, late Tuesday afternoon, Sask Power cut the umbilical cord to several customers in the flood-ravaged region. Dozens of cabin owners have been sandbagging feverishly to hold back water from Fishing Lake, but the loss of electricity is likely to force many people to higher ground. “We can no longer be selective and take metres out (at individual cabins),” said Sask Power spokesperson Larry Christie. Although Christie could not estimate how many people would be affected, he said Tuesday’s action involved a significant portion of line. Access roads to many areas of Fishing Lake are impassable, which helped force SaskPower’s hand.
“We can’t get into those places because the roads are so bad, so we’re cutting the line,” said Christie. At Ottmann Beach, ducks and even a muskrat swam over what used to be an access road. Murray Beach, just up the road, is also swamped. If power poles start falling, a live line would cause serious problems, said Christie. Cabin owners at Waldsea Lake, north of Humboldt, have also lost electrical service. Some customers outside of the flooded areas will likewise be affected because they are served by the same line.
Prior to Tuesday, SaskPower officials had been making daily inspections of properties. Any cabins surrounded by water had their electricity cut. “Even if a guy’s got a pump going or meat in the deep freeze, it didn’t matter. You were shut off,” said Harold Sandberg, mayor of Chorney Beach on the south end of the lake. While some cabin owners imported diesel sump pumps, Sandberg estimated Tuesday afternoon that about 20 pumps on Chorney Beach were still using electricity.
The local golf course now has more water hazards than fairways. The adjacent road also sits under water, further isolating the hardest-hit cabins on Chorney Beach. Even areas that seem high and dry aren’t safe, cautioned Sandberg. “A week ago, we knew we had to sand bag. But didn’t hink would be pouring over the banks.” Th Saskatchewan Watershed Authority reported a three-centimetre rise on Fishing Lake, Tuesday. However, rising water isn’t the only concern. Thick layers of ice continue to blanket the lake.
“With all of this work that we’re doing,” said Sandberg, “if we get one chunk of ice through a dike, that’ll be it for everybody because it’ll come through here whoosh!”A little farther east at Leslie Beach, cabin owner Edward Chasky expressed similar concerns about the ice. When the lake flooded several years ago, he watched a piece of ice that “went up the main beach at walking speed and pushed a cabin off its foundation.”
Street signs at Leslie Beach now mark a canal system. Chasky ploughed into the water on his all-terrain vehicle with a trailer in tow. He salvaged a small load — including a fridge and two mattresses — from his cabin. The71 year-old been coming to Fishing Lake since he was eight years old, but he doesn’t expect to be back any time soon. I’d be surprised if we’re back within two years.”