June 18, 2008

Residents of Manitoba Reserve Go Without Water in Funding Dispute


WINNIPEG - The chief of an aboriginal reserve south of Winnipeg was willing to have his community's water shut off and anger many of his residents to make a political point.

People on the Roseau River First Nation found themselves unable to flush their toilets or draw water from their taps Tuesday, after the regional water utility turned off its supply to the community of 1,200.

The band council had stopped paying the bills months ago to protest what it calls chronic underfunding from the federal government.

"It has to come to a head, it has to be solved," Chief Terrance Nelson said Wednesday.

"Because you have to come to a head sooner or later. You have to fix the problem with Indian Affairs."

Nelson argues a lack of federal funds has left his reserve hard-pressed to pay for basic necessities. Just last week, Manitoba Hydro cut electricity to some band-run buildings on the reserve due to non-payment of bills.

The Pembina Valley Water Cooperative, which serves many communities in the rural area, said it had no choice but to cut the water.

"We had made repeated attempts and made every effort to try and avoid this, because it's a very unpleasant situation...however, after repeated attempts came up empty and we got the impression they were not going to be making any payments, they really left us with no option," said CEO Sam Schellenberg.

The non-profit agency simply cannot afford to keep losing money to the reserve, he added.

By Wednesday afternoon, the band changed its mind and decided to cut a cheque for $50,000 to pay off the outstanding water bill. The taps were quickly turned back on.

Patricia Valladao, spokeswoman for Indian and Northern Affairs, said the department understands the chief and council are trying to improve the band's financial situation, although she said the hydro dispute has to be solved between the parties involved.

"We are available to facilitate discussions and our hope is that they can work to get a solution and we'll continue to monitor the situation," she said.

As for Nelson's complaints about federal funding, she said that through various departments, "the government of Canada .... spent about $10.2 billion on programs for services for aboriginal people, which is the highest in Canadian history."

While Nelson feels the episode garnered attention to his reserve's plight, he may pay a political price for it. Several residents were circulating a petition Wednesday calling for Nelson and the council to resign.

"We'll deal with that internally at the community level," Nelson told reporters.

"We're going to explain to them... exactly what's happening to the dollars."