Flood fears rise in Ontario, wane in Prairies

More evacuations have taken place in communities on James Bay in Ontario. Ken Loney for Global News

First Nations communities threatened by rising waters each spring should be moved off flood plains once and for all, a member of the Ontario legislature said Tuesday after flood fears triggered another wave of evacuations in the province.

“For years, we’ve been spending a lot of money moving people, flying them out every time there’s a flood,” said New Democrat Gilles Bisson, whose riding includes the flood-plagued James Bay region.

“It just seems to me that if we just keep on evacuating every spring, and every summer, we repair the damages from each flood, we’re just spending literally millions of dollars every year and not really finding a longer-term solution as far as permanency goes for those communities,” he said.

Instead, the provincial and federal governments should figure out a way to move residents to higher ground over time, like they did years ago in Timmins, Ont., Bisson said.

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The suggestion came a day after hundreds more residents were flown out of the Kashechewan First Nation in northern Ontario, which is about 500 kilometres north of Timmins, the closest urban centre.

Roughly 900 people — nearly two thirds of the remote reserve’s population of about 1,500 — have been evacuated as a precaution since the First Nation declared an emergency last week, Emergency Management Ontario said.

Evacuees are being housed in Cornwall, Thunder Bay and other communities.

About 160 vulnerable residents in Moosonee have been taken to Sudbury, while officials continue to monitor water levels in the troubled First Nation of Attawapiskat, which is also under a state of emergency.

Heavy snowfall followed by a rapid melt overwhelmed infrastructure in both Attawapiskat and Kashechewan last week, sending sewage into homes, schools and Attawapiskat’s lone hospital.

Both the provincial and federal representatives for the area have said they expect the cleanup to be costly.

As concerns over rising waters grow in Ontario, officials in the Prairie provinces said flood risks there appeared to be waning.

The Manitoba government’s latest dispatch said the threat was receding in many areas but there could be still be flooding to agricultural lands near parts of the Assiniboine River.

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A flood warning was issued Monday for a stretch of the river from St-Lazare to Brandon, while the area from St-Lazare to Milwood was under a flood watch, meaning the water was approaching the banks but had yet to overflow.

And water watchers in Saskatchewan were keeping an eye on rising lake levels, but in some areas the worst of the flood threat has passed.

Emergency management officials said Tuesday the late snow melt has kept water levels in the Qu’Appelle River system and some lakes lower than originally predicted, though there could still be localized flooding.

Thirteen communities in the province remained under states of emergency because of flooding.

Asked whether Ottawa would consider moving communities grappling with yearly floods, a spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt would only say that federal officials continue to “invest in and work with First Nations to ensure the health and safety of their communities.”

The ministry has already committed funding for a study of flood-mitigation options for the Albany River, where Kashechewan is located, Andrea Richer said.

Valcourt’s parliamentary secretary Greg Rickford met with the displaced residents on Tuesday in Kapuskasing, Ont., “to ensure that the immediate health and safety needs of evacuated community members continue to be met.”

Valcourt said Rickford told them that the federal government’s priority remains the health and safety of community members, and the safe return of evacuees to their homes.

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“Once the immediate emergency is over, the government’s priority will be to work with the First Nation to expedite the recovery effort so that people can return to their communities,” Valcourt said in a statement.

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