‘Bring our people back’: One year later, Peguis still feeling effects of devastating flooding

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‘Bring our people back’: One year later, Peguis still feeling effects of devastating flooding
‘Bring our people back’: One year later, Peguis still feeling effects of devastating flooding – May 3, 2023

It’s been one year since devastating flooding hit Peguis First Nation, Man., a community about 180 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

Last spring, heavy rainfall caused the Fisher River to rise rapidly, surrounding and filling hundreds of homes with water and sending the community into crisis overnight.

Peguis resident Carol Spence remembers it well.

“That was the worst flood ever,” Spence told Global News.

Water surrounds a home on Peguis First Nation in spring 2022. Marney Blunt / Global News
Flooding in the Peguis First Nation is shown in a handout photo taken with a drone on Sunday, May 1, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Albert Stevenson

“My son was phoning me and said, ‘We’re flooding, we’re flooding.’ And my brother said it sounded like four o’clock in the morning there was a just a big boom, a release (of the water). It was good until then, my brother said you could just hear a boom and then it just came rushing, and you couldn’t do nothing,” she said.

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“About four or five in the morning my brother jumped in his vehicle and he went honking down the road here to get everybody to wake up.”

Carol Spence assesses sandbags in front of her home on Peguis First Nation. While the community didn’t flood this year, she had sandbags put in as a precaution, as her home has had significant flooding in the past. Jordan Pearn / Global News

Spence says many homes in Peguis are prone to flooding, including hers. Her home has had over four feet of water in it on three occasions, including last year and in 2011 and 2014.

“I hope they do something for us, this is every year. Like, this is a normal situation for us. Every March April it’s like, ‘OK, are we going to flood? Are we going to flood?’ and then last year was a disaster,” Spence said. “That was really bad, that was scary. Knowing that all the roads were getting washed out, that part was scary.”

Hundreds of Peguis residents were sent to Winnipeg to stay in hotels or rentals. Today, many are still unable to return home, with hundreds of homes severely damaged, unlivable or condemned.

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Many homes in Peguis First Nation were sandbagged and tiger diked again this year out of an abundance of caution, as the community was at risk of flooding, but not as significant as in 2022. Jordan Pearn / Global News

Despite repeated flooding, Spence has never left her home of 25 years.

“I never leave. I never leave my house because it’s my house. It’s the only thing I have besides my child and my grandchildren. But this is my house, I’m not going to leave.”

The flood of last year is one resident Polyanna Bird never wants to see again.

“I never want to see that again…. It was so devastating for everybody,” Bird said.

Pollyanna Bird works as the flood centre co-ordinator in Peguis First Nation. Jordan Pearn / Global News

Bird works as the co-ordinator of the flood centre in Peguis First Nation, taking calls from people with home damage from flooding and helping get workers with sandbags and tiger dams to homes that were again at risk of flooding this year. She started working in the flood centre on April 28, 2022, right before the major flooding hit the community.

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“It was hard, there was many times I wanted to walk away and quit, then there were times where I couldn’t talk on the phone, I just had to stop and have a quick cry and it was really, really hard,” Bird said.

Bird says it’s difficult to think about the 2022 flood without having tears and emotions coming rushing back.

“I just wish everybody could come home,” Bird said, holding back tears.

“I feel so bad they don’t have a home to come home to, that’s what I feel really bad about. I wish just everybody could come back.”

Peguis flood centre co-ordinator Pollyanna Bird says it’s difficult to think about the 2022 flood without getting emotional. Jordan Pearn / Global News

“It was just really hard. Because there are still lots that are crying to come back, but then they can’t. There’s nothing for them to come back to and I really wish they could. This is our home, this is where they grew up, this is where their roots are. I feel really bad for them,” Bird added.

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“And the housing list is just getting bigger and bigger because of the flood. And I just wish everyone would be able to come home. Bring our people back.”

Flood damage in Peguis First Nation is significant and repeats itself. This road and culvert were washed away in the 2022 flooding. It was repaired and replaced, only to suffer significant flood damage again in 2023. Jordan Pearn / Global News

Today, it seems life is normal in the community. Floodwaters have receded, the Fisher River is flowing calmly and at normal levels, and people are going about their day-to-day business as usual.

But the devastating effects of the spring 2022 flood still linger, impacting both those in the community and those who are still away from home, according to Peguis Chief Stan Bird.

“Many of our families are still in Winnipeg and they want to return home. I’ve visited the families in Winnipeg, and it’s not a good situation there,” Chief Bird told Global News.

Chief Bird, who was voted in as Peguis First Nation chief at the beginning of April, replacing former chief Glen Hudson, says there has been a harsh impact on many of the evacuees. He says about 52 families still haven’t been able to return home.

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“Our children’s education is suffering. And just our overall health, when we’re talking our physical or mental health,” Chief Bird said.

“People are being pulled into the drugs, so addictions now are becoming a problem. So overall it hasn’t been a good situation for our people.”

Peguis First Nation, Man., is located approximately 180 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Jordan Pearn / Global News

Bird says 226 homes need to be replaced, and many that are in need of repair are full of mould.

“We have air quality testing that occurs prior to these families moving into these homes,” he said. “But still we have families in homes with mould. We have families with young ones and elders with chronic health conditions and this is where they live. The homes are filled with mould. So what do you do? We’re doing as best we can to meet the needs of our community, but we’re far from that.”

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The marshy area more than two hours north of Winnipeg is not Peguis’s original home. The community was originally the St. Peter’s reserve and was situated on agricultural land closer to Winnipeg. In 1907, the federal government did an illegal land transfer that resulted in Peguis being relocated to its current location, where the community has been hit with repeated and increased flooding in 2009, 2011, 2014 and last year, which was the worst flood the community has seen.

The community has been pushing for more permanent flood mitigation infrastructure to prevent repeated flooding. Chief Bird says talks are ongoing with Indigenous Services Canada to find ways to get residents home and to find permanent flood mitigation, but things aren’t moving fast enough.

“Flood mitigation or mediation is high on the list, and it makes no sense for us to build homes if they’re going to flood again next year.”

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