Five times over the past 16 years, the Fisher River has spilled its banks at Peguis First Nation.
The river channel is so small and the terrain in Manitoba’s northern Interlake is so flat, it doesn’t take much for floodwaters to spread far and wide across the Anishinaabe and Cree community.
Every time there’s a flood, the provincial and federal governments respond with some form of help. Depending on the severity of the flood in question, that assistance has included sandbags, pumps, billeting in hotels and even the replacement of dozens of flood-damaged homes.
What Peguis still doesn’t have — even after floods in 2006, 2009, 2011, 2014 and now this year — is permanent flood protection for all of the 3,053 people who live in the community.
That means every three or four years on average, a flood on the Fisher River requires the mass displacement of a significant portion of Peguis’s population.
This occurs while all other communities in the Red River Valley — including smaller centres like Morris, Emerson, St. Adolphe and Roseau River First Nation — are protected by ring dikes built high enough to keep floodwaters out.
No dike at Peguis
“Do you see a ring dike around Peguis like you do with the town of Morris or any other location? There’s nothing like that here,” Peguis Chief Glenn Hudson told CBC News last week.
He expressed frustration the federal government has not provided his community with permanent protection from the Fisher River.
“In terms of the long-term flood protection efforts, there has been very little money identified for that purpose, and that’s something we’ve been asking the federal government,” he said.
A study completed in 2008 identified four options for Peguis: Holding back water upstream, building a diversion channel, raising homes up on mounds or building dikes along either side of the Fisher River or around clusters of homes.
A compact ring dike at Peguis is not an option, given the linear layout of the community, where homes are built along both sides of the Fisher River and stretch out for kilometres.
Hudson said a diversion channel would cost about $50 million and a series of dikes would cost $90 million.
No firm promises for long-term protection
Neither the federal nor the provincial government appear eager to pick up part of this tab. Questions about long-term flood protection for Peguis are met with vague assurances about the future.
The federal Liberal government would not promise anything on Tuesday.
“Our government remains focused on the immediate flooding situation,” said Kyle Allen, a spokesperson for senior Manitoba MP Dan Vandal.
“Our government will work with all orders of government in addressing long-term flooding in Manitoba.”
The provincial Progressive Conservative government is also committing to work with other levels of government.
“When we look at the long term, we have to work together to making sure that everybody is participating,” Manitoba Infrastructure Minister Doyle Piwniuk said on Monday.
“That’s something that we have to work with, with the federal government.”
In other words, you can add a permanent flood-protection solution for Peguis to the list of things First Nations communities in Manitoba require but cannot easily get because of a cross-jurisdictional black hole that requires Ottawa, the province and First Nations to all get on the same page.
Piwniuk pointed to the Lake Manitoba-Lake St. Martin outlets as something the province and Ottawa are doing to assist flood-prone First Nations along the Fairford River, which drains Lake Manitoba into Lake Winnipeg.
But let’s be clear: those channels will also benefit dozens of communities along the shore of Lake Manitoba, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. They will allow the Assiniboine River to be diverted into Lake Manitoba without causing water levels to rise on the shallow lake the way they did in 2011, when a record volume of the Assiniboine was diverted north.
The channels will also benefit the city of Winnipeg, the main beneficiary of the Portage Diversion, which diverts the Assiniboine away from the city during significant floods and into Lake Manitoba instead.
In other words, the Lake Manitoba-Lake St. Martin outlets, first envisioned in 2011, are not amenities aimed solely at protecting First Nations from flooding.
They will be funded by the province as well as Ottawa, when and if the environmental approvals are ever worked out.
There is no similar funding in the works right now for flood protection for Peguis First Nation.
The community, however, would be sitting high and dry if it had never been forced to relocate from its fertile agricultural fields at St. Peter’s in the Red River Valley, where every community enjoys some form of permanent flood protection.