The Manitoba government told a Winnipeg courtroom Tuesday it spent years consulting with a group of First Nations about a multimillion-dollar flood protection project only to be met with a lack of engagement from the communities.
The Interlake Reserves Tribal Council, which includes six communities in the province’s Interlake region, asked for a judicial review into the Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin outlet channels project after they say Manitoba began work on an all-access road without consulting nearby First Nations.
The tribal council was in the Court of Queen’s Bench to ask that the decision allowing the access road permit be reconsidered. The two-day hearing concluded Tuesday afternoon.
In court, lawyers for the province said the government held more than 10 meetings with affected communities and sent several letters of correspondence about the road.
“We’re talking six years of consultation relating to this issue,” Maureen Killoran told the court. “Still, after six years, we’re really struggling to understand what the perspective of the (Interlake Reserves Tribal Council) is.”
The $540-million project is aimed at preventing a repeat of extensive flooding that forced thousands from their homes in First Nations communities in 2011 after the province decided to intentionally divert water to prevent flooding in Winnipeg.
The project has yet to be approved as environmental regulators in Ottawa have questioned whether the government has done enough to address the communities’ concerns.
The First Nations have said they worry the project will impact the area’s fishing industry and traditional lands.
The tribal council has hosted meetings with other stakeholders to express concerns over the project but government representation never attended — despite the group saying they had extended invitations.
Lawyers for the tribal council argued in court Monday that the province was speaking with the group, but there were no discussions about clearing land when consultations began.
The tribal council said conversations around the road were brought up during talks about the overall project, but they were not informed of a clear process on the work that would be done.
On Tuesday, Meaghan Conroy told the court that Manitoba should have had separate meetings with her clients dedicated to road construction. The province, however, said that would have been impractical.
The group also asked the court to evaluate the province’s duty to consult before issuing permits that allow Crown land to be cleared.
Justice Glenn Joyal reserved his decision on the review.