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MARK BONOKOSKI: Another thaw, another Kaschechewan airlift, another $22 million gone

Kaschechewan
Kaschechewan - Google Maps

Come hell or high water is not an option for the besieged Cree of the isolated Northern Ontario reserve of Kaschechewan.

They get both. Year after year.

In fact, hell and high water have become a tradition for residents of the James Bay community some 400 km north of Timmins — the hell of packing up every year with the spring ice jam, and the destructive consequences of high water and sewage backup — and so mass evacuations again began Monday to get a beat on its perennial flooding.

The overflowing of the Albany River has become so predictable that there should be a dedicated expense line in the federal budget allocated to Kaschechewan because it annually costs taxpayers upwards of $22 million to evacuate the 2,500 members of this fly-in First Nation reserve and airlift them to safety in Timmins, Kapuskasing, Thunder Bay and as far south as the St. Lawrence seaway town of Cornwall.

There is no other choice.

It became such a ritual that, almost a decade ago, the former Liberal government of Jean Chretien proposed a $500-million plan to move the community upriver to higher ground, but then the Conservative government of Stephen Harper reached an agreement with the band to instead invest $200 million in flood protection.

“It seems that all the measures that they put in to stabilize the community with the dikes around them failed,” said Charlie Angus, the NDP MP for the region. “Year after year, it fails. They keep making these efforts to try and put the Band-Aids on, but this is simply not a safe ground for anybody to live.”

Angus didn’t say this recently, though.

He said it back in 2014.

The Trudeau Liberals, still recovering from the Lavscam scandal and the resignations of two key cabinet ministers later booted entirely out of caucus, former justice minister and attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould and former Treasury Board president Jane Philpott, ended up putting arguably one of their weakest cabinet ministers to lead Indigenous services.

When the flood crisis was building, for example, Kaschechewan Chief Leo Friday didn’t even call Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan.

Instead he called Jane Philpott.

Now an Independent MP, Philpott stood in the Commons last week to berate the government for continuing to drag its feet in not finding a new home for the embattled Cree community.

“Our country spends millions of dollars annually for evacuations and for repairing flood-damaged homes,” she said. “When can we expect a serious commitment to funding the relocation that the community has been (seeking) for years?”

What she got in return was condescension.

Dan Vandal, O’Regan’s parliamentary secretary shot back at her: “The member would know very well from her work as a former minister for Indigenous Services … that work is underway to deliver on this commitment.”

The Trudeau Liberals must be rolling in money, though. If they have $12 million to give Loblaws to update its stores’ refrigeration to a more enviro-friendly system, then what’s another $22 million to airlift 2,500 Cree and their children to safety?

Even O’Regan must easily see this as a no-brainer. Making a written-in-stone commitment to relocate the entire reserve permanently, however, would likely be too taxing a mental challenge.

He’d need to first invest in a thinking cap.

And they seem to be in short supply.

markbonokoski@gmail.com

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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