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Crees flown out as Albany River rises

TORONTO - It was a joyous day in Kashechewan in October 2005 when Andy Scott, the Indian Affairs minister of the day, signed an agreement with Chief Leo Friday to relocate the 1,900-member Cree community.

''I'm so happy for my people,'' Friday said, to hugs and cheers from grateful residents.

Since that time, dashed hopes and shattered dreams have ensued, but no move. This year, Kashechewan - still in the same flood-prone spot on the Albany River - was evacuated for the fourth time in three years as waters rose to record levels.

Around 1,100 from that community were flown to shelters in more southerly Ontario towns and cities, along with 500 from Fort Albany on the opposite side of the river. There was a partial evacuation of 23 patients from the clinic at Attawpiskat to the north.

Three days later, just as suddenly, the evacuation was reversed - the waters were subsiding rapidly, confounding expert predictions. The evacuation was reversed. It would take a few days for everyone to be brought home again.

In Kashechewan, this spring breakup ritual is deeply disruptive to a community already struggling with overcrowding, unemployment, drug abuse and suicide. Families are split, work and education are interrupted and homes can be damaged.

Many question whether the evacuation cycle won't end up being more expensive than moving the community to higher ground, an option refused by the federal government.

''This is ridiculous,'' a frustrated Chief Jonathan Solomon told CanWest News Service at the height of the emergency. ''Why do we have to do this [evacuate] and continue to do this as long as we are here? The government has to come to the table and find a solution here.''

Flooding has been a regular occurrence since the people were moved to this location in 1957. Finally, in 1997, a dyke with walls 10 feet high was completed, encircling the community. Less than a decade later, it failed and water seeped in at several locations.

In December 2006, an expert panel found the community was at risk because of deficiencies in the dyke. Shoddy construction had first been identified in a 1998 report, and a 2005 report set repair costs at $30 million.

Dykes are costly, and so are evacuations. The most expensive, at $21.1 million, was in October 2005 after a whistle-blowing physician made public the community's appalling conditions, including widespread skin and intestinal disease from E. coli-contaminated drinking water.

The April 2006 evacuation cost $20.2 million. In April 2007, the Albany stayed within its banks. This year, the worst damage was on the Fort Albany side, where water has flowed over a diversion dyke.

In Kashechewan, after the disruptions of 2005 and 2006, Scott's promise to rebuild the community on higher ground, 20 miles upriver, signaled a new dawn. Then, in June 2006, came a bombshell announcement from the new Conservative Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice: He didn't feel bound by that undertaking and was commissioning Alan Pope, a retired Conservative politician, to study the options.

Pope's October 2006 recommendation was another stunner: Move the residents 280 miles south to Timmins (population 43,000) at a cost of $200 million in order to address issues of isolation, inadequate infrastructure and limited economic opportunities.

The Timmins option has led to widespread suspicion among First Nations that there's a desire to get aboriginals out of the way of a frenzy of mining exploration amid soaring mineral prices. The De Beers Victor diamond mine is 55 miles from Attawapiskat.

As Member of Parliament Charlie Angus, Timmins-James Bay, has pointed out, the government is using economic reasons to justify moving First Nations off their homelands at the very time that entrepreneurs are arriving, lured by opportunities for fabulous wealth.

''I think if the government had its way, they would get rid of all of us,'' said Stan Louttit, grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Tribal Council, which includes Kashechewan.

Louttit and others emphasize that there's no need to see First Nations as a hindrance. Reform of Ontario's outdated Mining Act, consultation and sharing of resource revenues are the way forward, all the while preserving the right of communities to say no to development.

Kashechewan commissioned a painstaking community consultation carried out by Laurentian University professor Emily Faries. She found that 95 percent of residents wanted to stay in their traditional territory rather than move to the south, and 75 percent favored the site upriver.

In March 2007, Prentice flatly rejected their choice, saying it would cost $500 million and be too expensive. Under duress four months later, Solomon signed a $200 million agreement to rebuild the community in its present location. ''We've made the best deal we can,'' he said.

Speaking in the House of Commons in Ottawa April 28, current Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl said the people have remained at their present location at their own request.

That, Angus said, was a ''shameful twisting of the words of the leadership. ... They were bitterly disappointed when they were told to stay in the flood plain and 'accept what we're giving you or accept nothing.'''

Angus questions the $500 million price tag the government attached to the move upriver.

''They threw that figure out to the media; they never sat down to work with the community.''

People in Kashechewan were looking at ways of dismantling and moving buildings and salvaging whatever they could, he said. ''I think we were looking at more like $350 million.''

He added that the $3.5 million Indian Affairs has spent on strengthening the Kashechewan dyke falls far short of what has been recommended to make the structure safe.

Strahl said the upriver location was not a viable location because it's still in the flood plain. But Louttit said the site was chosen because it's on higher ground and has never flooded.