Roseau River First Nation Loses Water and Power

by Kelly McCaffery

Utility companies say the Roseau River First Nation isn’t paying their bills, so the power and water supplies are being cut off. The Chief says the government needs to come through with the financial support it has promised, but Indian Affairs doesn’t want to take a stand. Meanwhile, the people are caught in the middle. Martha Larocque’s family is one of many who will feel the effects of the shut-offs. She is quoted by CBCnews saying, “No water running, and we have no outdoor toilets. We don’t have nothing, nowhere to cook except to cook outside, I guess. We might be back to the ancient times.” Cutting off the water supply affects the fire service, local businesses, and community services in addition to most homes on the reserve. At the medical centre, two dialysis patients had to be transferred to a hospital in Morden, Man. because of the water shut-off. Residents were urged to conserve water, but the little water remaining in the community reservoir did not last very long.

Last winter, the Roseau River First Nation dealt with a water crisis that lasted more than a week. Some homes had no running water for several days. After the water supply was fixed, a serious health concern still remained. Septic tank pumps installed the previous summer were draining raw sewage onto the ground just meters away from people’s homes. At that time, Roseau River Chief Terry Nelson told CBCnews that the houses need adequate septic fields, not makeshift drainage systems. He said there’s not enough financial support from the federal government to pay for housing maintenance. “Everything has to be paid for by chief and council. Chief and council are the ones that have to obtain the mortgage. We have to pay for the electricity. We have to pay for the water. We have to pay for the sewer. In some cases, we even have to pay for the furniture,” he said. Officials with Indian Affairs said the sewage system is ultimately the band’s responsibility.

Early this June, the water company cut off service to the Roseau River First Nation because the band is behind on its bills. Water is piped to the reserve (which lies about 80 kilometers southeast of Winnipeg) from nearby Letellier by the Pembina Valley Water Cooperative. After several months without payment (racking up almost $50,000 in debt) and no response from tribal leaders, officials with the company felt they had “no other option.”

Manitoba Hydro also cut off services citing lack of payment, leaving the community recreation center and a government building without power. The band council owes nearly $70,000 for hydro payments. If payment is not made, Hydro will ask Indian Affairs to get involved and an independent financial manager could be placed in charge of the band’s day-to-day business. The Indian Affairs department on the other hand is hoping that Manitoba Hydro and Roseau River can settle the dispute without government involvement.

Chief Terry Nelson says it’s the government who should be paying, and at a news conference he called the water shut-off “an act of terrorism.” He said, “Ottawa pays us to administer the social services program, but they continually underfund us.” Annual costs are almost 2.2 million, but Ottowa provided only $1.7 million for community welfare. The council has to make up for the half-million dollar gap in funds. “We have had to use profits from our business projects to cover the shortfall and we just decided that we’re not going to do that anymore,” Nelson said. Indian Affairs denies reducing funding and says band administration is reimbursed for pre-approved programming provided the spending is properly documented.

Nelson estimates that annual federal funding per member amounts to a little over $3000 each, and demands that more money be allocated based on both population and community need. Indian and Northern Affairs has delivered less than half of the amount of total funding promised, and Nelson feels that the regional office should open its books and allow a public inquiry.

Over 1,000 residents live on the Roseau River Nation reserve, and they count on community leaders to work for their welfare to ensure basic public necessities. To some, the finger-pointing is just another indication that civic leaders have failed again. The Winnipeg Free Press reported that some residents collected about 135 signatures on a petition asking the Indian Affairs Minister to remove tribal leaders.

After the reservoir ran dry, Chief Nelson finally made the $50,000 water bill payment using money earned through his private businesses. Pembina Valley Water then restored water service to the community. Nelson, however still intends to ignore other debts until Indian Affairs comes through with more money, saying, “We want to know why our social services do not get an equal share.”