By Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG – Indigenous leaders called on the Manitoba government Thursday to declare a state of emergency and free up more hotel rooms for people who have fled northern forest fires.
Chief Dino Flett of Garden Hill First Nation said evacuees living in close quarters in emergency shelters in Winnipeg — sleeping in rows of cots — have been getting sick while waiting for hotel space.
“I’m just trying to take care of my people and right now these shelters are not helping,” Flett said as he and others prepared for a protest march to the Manitoba legislature.
“There’s still children in the shelters and … they’re catching colds. They’re getting sick. They’re not getting any better.”
A reported mumps outbreak at one shelter Thursday prompted the Canadian Football League Winnipeg Blue Bombers to postpone a planned visit by some evacuees to the team’s stadium.
“We are incredibly disappointed we cannot host the evacuees who have been displaced from their homes,” the team said in a statement.
“However, the safety of guests, fans and players is the top priority of the Winnipeg football club when hosting events at the stadium.”
More than 4,000 people were forced to leave their homes last week in three aboriginal communities — Garden Hill, Wasagamack and St. Theresa Point — when they were threatened by a large forest fire 500 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Almost half of the evacuees were put up initially in two large shelters inside a soccer facility and at the Winnipeg Convention Centre.
Flett said he could not recall forest fire evacuees ever having to use a large shelter, because there was always available hotel space.
The Canadian Red Cross, which is managing the evacuation effort for the federal government, said space in Winnipeg hotels was tight because of the summer tourist season and an earlier evacuation of 800 people from the Poplar River First Nation. But hotel rooms are becoming available and evacuees — primarily the elderly, the sick and people with young children — have been moved.
By Thursday, the convention centre shelter had closed and about 300 people remained at the soccer facility.
Judy Klassen, a Liberal legislature member who represents the evacuation area, also called on the Progressive Conservative government to declare a state of emergency that would induce hotels to free up more rooms.
Premier Brian Pallister said it is up to the federal government, which has responsibility for First Nations communities, to make the declaration.
He said all people involved in the rescue effort have been doing the best they can.
“Frankly, all the resources that we can put to use … are being deployed,” Pallister said.
“It’s a deplorable situation and we’re doing our very best. And I applaud the people who are doing all they can, and the agencies and the volunteers that are working to … address the needs of the people who are being displaced.”
— With files from Stephanie Levitz