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Waterhen members on the verge of being displaced again

Rob Swystun, The Daily Graphic
Staff photo by Rob Swystun -- Members of the Waterhen First Nation Band - Portage have stated the province started a relocation process for them called the Process to Develop a Working Plan that Will Identify Options for the Relocation of Waterhen First Nation Band - Portage, which ran fine from December 1998 until July 1999 when it suddenly stalled. The band members have not been paying rent in the Manitoba Housing complex in Portage where they've been living since that time and now face eviction from the Zelena complex in the city's northeast end.

Staff photo by Rob Swystun -- Members of the Waterhen First Nation Band - Portage have stated the province started a relocation process for them called the Process to Develop a Working Plan that Will Identify Options for the Relocation of Waterhen First Nation Band - Portage, which ran fine from December 1998 until July 1999 when it suddenly stalled. The band members have not been paying rent in the Manitoba Housing complex in Portage where they've been living since that time and now face eviction from the Zelena complex in the city's northeast end.

The plight of the Waterhen First Nation members who have been living in Manitoba Housing in Portage la Prairie since 1996 has taken another twist.

Spokeswoman for the Waterhen group Donna Gabriel said members of the group, including her, have received eviction orders from Manitoba Housing telling them they need to vacate the homes at the Zelana housing complex in Portage that they've been living in for the past 15 years by Jan. 31.

The Waterhen band members are currently going through rental hearings with the province.

Gabriel said the outcomes of these hearings are all resulting in the rental arrears that the band members currently owe, all in the $58,000 range each, being erased with an order that the band members start paying rent again.

The members have not been paying rent for the houses for about 14 years, Gabriel said.

She said this was based on an agreement the members made with then-minister of aboriginal affairs for Manitoba David Newman in 1998.

"We acted on a good faith basis for us to pay reasonable rent and in turn a relocation process to take place and it was going great for about a year," Gabriel said. "But for some reason the Manitoba government stalled and they never gave us any reasons to say why they suddenly just tossed the relocation process."

Once the relocation process stalled, she said, the band members saw that as a break in their agreement with the province, which is why the group stopped paying rent.

A 1998 letter from Newman states that in return for the Waterhen members paying reasonable rent, the provincial government would work with the band members in their efforts to form a new reserve.

A procedure was started, called "The Process to Develop a Working Plan that will Identify Options for the Relocation of Waterhen First Nation Band - Portage" and meetings were held from December 1998 to July 1999 with a now-defunct company called Phaze Studios Inc. facilitating the meetings between the province and the Waterhen band members.

In those meetings, the band members decided they wanted a new reserve set up and had picked a location near the Norquay Colony and they wanted to have on-reserve status again. It was also noted in meeting minutes that to do that, the federal government would have to be involved.

The eviction order from Manitoba Housing is another bump in the road for the band members, who Gabriel said were forced off the Waterhen First Nation, now named the Skownan First Nation, about 110 kilometres northeast of Dauphin on the bank of Waterhen Lake, back in 1996.

Fifteen years ago, approximately 350 members of Waterhen First Nation were legally evicted by the provincial and federal government and transferred to Manitoba Housing units in Portage la Prairie after protesting against then-chief Harvey Nepinak, claiming the band's managers were mishandling their money.

While some band members had been convicted in Manitoba courts for criminal activity relating to a blockade that was set up near the reserve, those convictions were overturned by the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Manitoba Housing eviction notices are just the latest blow to the band members, Gabriel said, who feel their basic human rights have been violated by the eviction from the then-Waterhen First Nation.

"Where are we going to go?" Gabriel said Wednesday. "We're without a land base."

A spokesman for Manitoba Housing said that organization has always taken the position that the Waterhen members were required to pay rent and they've all signed leases.

In July 2010, the spokesman said via email, Manitoba Housing put forward a proposal to the Waterhen tenants at Zelana, located in the city's northeast end, to address rent arrears and provide a payment plan to begin paying for damages incurred over the years.

"Currently," the spokesman said, "several Waterhen tenants are in the process of attending Rental Tenancy Board (RTB) hearings to address issues related to non-payment of rent. While we cannot discuss the details of the individual cases, it must be pointed out that the tenants have the right to appeal the ruling handed down by the RTB."

The spokesman said because this issue remains before the RTB, Manitoba Housing couldn't speak in detail to it at this time.

As for the Process to Develop a Working Plan . for the Waterhen band members that was abruptly stopped in July 1999, provincial spokesman Matt Williamson said the provincial government, even after that process stopped in July 1999, continued to try and work with the band members and the federal government, as the band members indicated they wanted to start a new reserve.

Matters relating to on-reserve aboriginals usually fall to the federal government, however, an Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) spokesman said, the federal government has already explained its situation to the Waterhen band members.

"We are aware that some members from Skownan that are in Portage la Prairie have expressed a desire for a new reserve," said Jeff Solmundson, communications officer for INAC in Winnipeg. "We have given them information about it - our policies - and where it stands now is any decision involving establishment of a new reserve would have to have the consent of Skownan's chief and council. And it would involve a transfer of their existing reserve land."

That means, the current Skownan chief and council would have to agree to have the Skownan First Nation shrink in size and have the amount of land it shrinks by declared a reserve elsewhere for the displaced Waterhen members.

Solmundson said that INAC has explained this policy to the Waterhen group in Portage over the past several years.

rswystun@cpheraldleader.com



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