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Families who fled still waiting for new reserve

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PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE, Man.—More than 12 years after they fled a Manitoba First Nation following a bitter month-long blockade, almost two dozen families still haven’t got permanent homes.

The 25 families from the Waterhen First Nation moved into public housing in Portage la Prairie, Man. in the summer of 1996 when the province and Ottawa made a deal for them to live rent-free until a long-term arrangement could be made.

“They had to live somewhere,” said Geoff Bowden, general manager of Manitoba Housing Authority. “We are a civilized nation.”

However, the deal was supposed to be temporary—the plan called for the dissidents to negotiate with the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada to establish a new reserve.

Bowden said the province and Ottawa continue to try to find a resolution. Rent arrears to the Manitoba Housing Authority for the Waterhen tenants in Portage la Prairie total more than $500,000.

Indian Affairs does not support off-reserve housing.

About 300 people left Waterhen, about 100 km northeast of Dauphin, in July, 1996 following a stand-off with RCMP.

The blockade stemmed from a long-standing feud between the two factions at Waterhen. The dissidents took control of the reserve, blockading then-Chief Harvey Nepinak and council and about 300 residents—about half the reserve’s population at the time.

Sixteen people later were found guilty of mischief for their part in the uprising.

The case went to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ordered new trials. The Crown later stayed the charges, saying prosecution of the accused no longer was in the public interest.

The Doer government has tried to kick-start the process with Ottawa over what to do with the dissident families, but says the response from Ottawa has been slow.

Indian Affairs spokesman Jeff Solmundson said to create a new reserve, the dissident families need the blessing of the current Waterhen chief and council. No new land will be allotted for a new reserve—it has to be transferred from existing reserve land.

A spokesman for Waterhen was unavailable for comment.

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