Interlake First Nations leaders call new $15M fund connected to flood channel ‘a slap in the face’

First Nations leaders from the Interlake Reserves Tribal Council (IRTC) say they were blindsided after Manitoba announced a new $15 million economic development fund meant to assist communities affected by flooding in Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin — calling it “crumbs” compared to the now estimated $600 million project.

In early October, Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Doyle Piwniuk announced that the province would develop a $15 million fund to support Indigenous economic development opportunities related to the Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin outlet channels project.

The project involves building two approximately 23-kilometre-long outlet channels to enhance flood protection for communities around Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin, according to an Oct. 5 news release.

“This is a slap in the face towards our governments,” said IRTC chief executive officer Karl Zadnik, at the Wednesday news conference.

Zadnik says on one side of the channels is a cultural site that contains bones and pottery, and on the other is a place where lake sturgeon spawn. Both sites need to be handled with care as they are important to nearby communities, who the province continues to fail when it comes to proper consultation, he said.

“You continue to dictate to us what these terms are in terms of being a participant on this project. I’m sorry but you’re being a participant on our land,” said Zadnick.

The new fund will be administered as a proposal-based funding program, the province said, and applications will be open to 39 Indigenous groups involved in the outlet channels project.

“Lake Manitoba First Nation won’t be applying for a penny of that,” Chief Cornell McLean said.

The member nations of the IRTC are also unhappy with the number of other communities able to apply for the funding, since they say many are not as impacted by the flooding they face.

“We feel again that we have been given the short end of the stick,” said Byron Swan, a band councillor for Lake Manitoba First Nation.

He says $15.9 million split between 39 communities equals around $400,000 each — the cost of building a single house.

“To get a four bedroom house on a First Nation costs $380,000,” said Swan.

Swan is against the new economic development fund as a band member and as a councillor, and says the province told the IRTC what they wanted to hear during meetings last summer. First Nations members left those meetings feeling hopeful, he says, because they thought the province was finally recognizing the First Nations as an equal partner in the project.

“We just got blindsided again,” said Swan.

Last June, Chief Justice Glenn Joyal of the Court of Queen’s Bench ruled that the province did not live up to its constitutional duty to consult First Nations involved with the outlet project, which still has yet to be approved, as environmental regulators in Ottawa have questioned whether the provincial government has done enough to address nearby First Nations concerns.

The province said it will collaborate with Indigenous communities involved with the outlet channels project to develop a framework for the $15 million fund before its official launch, according to the Oct. 5 news release.

But Swan says the province has failed to consult the affected communities and is dictating what First Nations should do. Their communities want to see fair consultations from the province, he says. 

“Consult us properly. Not with emails, not with paper, but face to face.”

The provincial government is not treating the First Nations involved with the respect they deserve, said Swan, making them feel like second-class citizens.

“It’s hard for us to go home and tell our people, ‘Sorry, we’ve been let down again,'” he said.

“We’re always left in the dark on every single thing that happens… There’s more and more water, and less and less land.”

CBC reached out to the province for clarifications of what the $15 million economic development fund is meant to go towards at around 1 p.m., but did not hear back on Wednesday.