2 more Manitoba First Nations file lawsuit over Winnipeg sewage spill

Two more Manitoba First Nations have launched a lawsuit against the City of Winnipeg over a massive sewage spill, adding to the billions of dollars First Nations leaders are seeking after hundreds of millions of litres of diluted sewage leaked into the Red River in February.

A statement of claim filed in the Court of King’s Bench on May 21 lists Roland Hamilton of Bloodvein First Nation and Lawrence Letander of Dauphin River First Nation as plaintiffs, on behalf of their First Nations and their members. 

Like the lawsuit filed by eight other First Nations last month, the latest claim asks the court to order the City, as well as the provincial and federal governments, to pay each of the First Nations $500 million in damages for violations of their Charter rights, plus $100 million each in punitive damages.

Along with approximately $4.8 billion in total damages sought in the earlier suit, the three levels of government now face a combined total of $6 billion in potential damages to the First Nations, all of which have communities downstream from Winnipeg. 

A pipe that carries sewage under the Red River near the Fort Garry Bridge burst on Feb. 7, spilling more than 200 million litres of untreated sewage into the Red River before the leak was stopped weeks later. It was the second-largest spill in Winnipeg’s history

A man with a moustache and wearing glasses is looking slightly off camera.
Chief Roland Hamilton of Bloodvein First Nation joined the lawsuit later, saying he was busy when the initial suit was filed. (CBC/Travis Golby)

Bloodvein Chief Roland Hamilton told CBC News he was busy in the community when the original lawsuit was filed, which is why he was not part of the original statement of claim and not present at a news conference with the eight other chiefs and other First Nations leaders in Winnipeg on May 1.

“I think it’s only fair that we put in a claim also as we are part of one of the communities that’s right alongside Lake Winnipeg here. It affects us also, whatever’s happening over there,” he said in an interview.

“We live off Lake Winnipeg for fishing and stuff like that, so it greatly affects our community members here.”

Regular spills

In addition to the February spill, the lawsuit notes the city regularly releases untreated sewage into the waterways through combined sewers, which allow diluted raw sewage to flow into the rivers during heavy rain storms.

After heavy rainfall hit the city on Friday, 12.2 million litres of diluted sewage spilled into the river from the outfall near Abinojii Mikanah, the same location as the February leak. More sewage spills were reported on Saturday, but the volumes were not posted as of Monday. 

That comes after 21 million litres of sewage spilled from the same location following heavy storms on May 16, 17 and 18. 

In all of those instances, a bypass system set up after the leak in February couldn’t keep up with the flow. 

Nutrients from the sewage and other sources have been linked to large toxic algae blooms on Lake Winnipeg, which suck oxygen out of the water and threaten the ecosystem.

The city is in the midst of two massive upgrades to its sewage system. The upgrades to the North End Sewage Treatment Plant is estimated to cost $2.3 billion, while work to replace the combined sewer system is expected to cost another $2 billion.

Council has set a completion date of 2045 for the combined sewer upgrades, but city staff have said it could take as long as 2095 without significant funding increases.  

Coun. Brian Mayes, chair of the water and waste committee, said he hopes the lawsuits serve as motivation for other levels of government to step in with the money needed to speed up the process.

“Maybe it’s the optimist in there, but I kind of see this as an opportunity to get back on track and start doing some of the work that needs to be done,” Mayes said.

A spokesperson for the city told CBC News it is reviewing the statement of claim and had no comment. 

No statement of defence has been filed, and no court date has been set.