Rebecca Friday remembers the first flood to strike Kashechewan First Nation, forcing the community's residents to evacuate in 1976.

She was a new mother then, her daughter recently born, when everything was inundated by more than a metre of water.

That was the year the Cree community first raised the alarm with the Canadian government, which had ordered them settled on the northern banks of the Albany River near James Bay against their wishes some 20 years before.

The next flood came in the mid-1980s, she said, and resulted in the construction of the dike that now surrounds a community which fears it will not hold much longer.

Overall, flooding and evacuations have struck Kashechewan at springtime 17 times since the 1970s as melting snow and ice from farther upstream flood or threaten to flood the low-lying land, according to the federal government.

The disasters strike consistently almost every springtime, forcing Kashechewan's residents to hole up in temporary accommodation for three to six weeks in the peak of goose hunting season.

Today, Rebecca Friday is the deputy grand chief of the Mushkegowuk council, which includes Kashechewan and six other communities including Attawapiskat, a little further north towards Hudson's Bay.

The federal government says the evacuations have come as a result of major flooding in 1976, 1985 and 2006, as well as for minor flooding in 1989, 1997, and 2014. In the other 11 years, Indigenous Services Canada spokeswoman Martine Stevens said that evacuations were done as a precautionary measure.

The Kashechewan community was forced to evacuate again at the end of April and members of the community say they have had enough. At their last general band meeting they pledged to construct a road out of the flood-prone area to an alternate site some 30 kilometres away, whether they receive follow-through on previous government promises or not.

Meanwhile, dozens of displaced members of Kashechewan traveled from temporary lodgings in northern Ontario to Toronto on Monday to meet provincial officials and protest government inaction in the face of the regular springtime flooding of their remote community of some 2,500 residents.

Members of Kashechewan First Nation hold protest signs outside Queen's Park in Toronto on April 29, 2019. Photo by Alastair Sharp

Their advocacy for long-ignored rights under a treaty signed with both federal and provincial governments has often been overshadowed by other stories, such as recent flooding to strike the Montreal and Ottawa regions.

Only a few days earlier, both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford were helping to fill sandbags and offering support to emergency service staff and volunteers in Ottawa-Gatineau and other flooded cities.

Ford told residents in Bracebridge and other communities in the Muskoka area popular for cottage getaways that the province "will spare no resources to support the affected areas, no matter if it's here or in Huntsville."

Meanwhile the convoy — which traveled in four buses from temporary lodgings Timmins, Cochrane, and Kapuskasing — continued on to Ottawa on Tuesday for a demonstration on Parliament Hill and a meeting with Seamus O'Regan, the federal minister of Indigenous services.

O'Regan joined the band's elected chief, Leo Friday, and other community representatives on the steps of the legislative building after a meeting he said lasted "a better part of the morning" to say they had talked about "real and concrete steps that we can take to get Kashechewan moved."

"Ladies and gentleman, Kashechewan will be relocated," he said, without mentioning a timeframe or budget, to cheers from some Kashechewan residents. "You all deserve a home," he told them. "You all deserve a community to call your own."

Meanwhile Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, accompanied by federal ministers for national defence, Harjit Sajjan, and transportation, Marc Garneau, told reporters outside the House of Commons that up to 2,600 Canadian Forces personnel have been deployed in flooded areas of Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, while the danger in Manitoba has subsided.

Goodale noted that the vast majority of the 1,600 evacuations in Ontario were from Kashechewan, with relatively few elsewhere. He expressed concern about further rain engorging the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers that run through major population centres, including the national capital region that straddles Ontario and Quebec and Montreal.

Goodale added that the federal government is facing more financial pressure in recent years as the costs of financial disasters rise every year. Under an existing cost-sharing disaster assistance arrangement with the provinces, he said that the government has spent more over the past six years in compensation for fire and flood losses than in the previous 40 years of that program.

"Whether it’s storms and floods or droughts and wildfires the consequences of a destabilized climate are very tangibly and very expensively affecting the whole country," Goodale said. "We need to make sure we have all the right response mechanisms to keep Canadians safe.

Meantime, in the House of Commons, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh accused the government of breaking its promise to help the Kashechewan community relocate to higher ground by not allocating funding in its 2019 budget.

Trudeau denied that, telling the Commons that his government had made significant commitments and was working with the nation to build the road, secure the land needed and design the new community. He did not mention a dollar amount tied to the efforts.

No progress on 2017 relocation plan

Earlier in the week, the Kashechewan contingent came to Ontario's legislature "to send a message out to the Ontario government, the Ford government, to assist the First Nation and pressure the federal government to relocate the community," said Conredge Solomon, executive director of the nation.

Representatives of the community said they had a productive meeting with Greg Rickford, the provincial minister of energy, mines, northern development and Indigenous affairs.

Pictured from L-R: Peter Friday, a band councillor; Conredge Solomon, executive director, and Stephane Friday, a band councillor, pose for a photograph outside Queen's Park in Toronto on April 29, 2019. Photo by Alastair Sharp

The Cree community signed Treaty 9 — with both provincial and federal signatories — in 1905 and were forcibly relocated in 1957 to their current location approximately 500 km north of Timmins despite it being prone to flooding.

They reached an agreement with the provincial and federal governments to move forward with a relocation plan in 2017, but haven't seen any progress towards that goal.

Tyson Wesley, director of the community's economic development corporation, said each evacuation costs between $20 million and $40 million, while a permanent relocation was estimated to cost $800 million two years ago.

'People are fed up'

Wesley said the community decided at a recent band general meeting to start building a road this summer to enable an eventual relocation regardless of whether federal funding is made available.

"When the people spoke, they said they are tired of being evacuated and they are going to volunteer their time to start constructing, clear-cutting, whatever it takes," he said. "People are fed up."

Stephane Friday, a band councillor, said that relocating is key to his nation's future.

"We want to relocate for a better generational direction for our community, for our people," he said. "It's important to our Cree values, our Cree culture, our Cree principles. We are going to write our own Cree destiny and we are not going to let any Canadian government overwrite that."

"We don't want any more evacuations, we just want a home, to feel safe, and to live, not to survive," the band councillor said.

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