Peguis First Nation resident Cheryl Thomson is wearing two large black garbage bags — one for each leg — as a pair of makeshift hip-waders. She needs them to get to her home, which is now surrounded by knee-deep floodwater.
Her home is one of the roughly 700 damaged by the flood this year. Despite an evacuation order, the 61-year-old is staying put.
She’s staying behind to help the helpers: she works at the community grocery store as a cashier, which has stayed open to feed the sandbaggers.
More than 1,300 evacuees have been forced out of the Interlake community, which is 160 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Many of them are now staying in hotels in Winnipeg.
The entire lower level of Thomson’s house that she’s lived in since 2008 is underwater, her porch is floating, her sweat lodge is destroyed and the house has no heat or running water.
“As the water rose, we could hear ‘pop, pop’ — a breaker had blown,” Thomson said.
She’s never seen the inside of her home flood like this. Peguis has experienced major flooding in 2009, 2011 and 2014, and Thomson was always able to keep the water out with sandbagging.
“This year, [the water] came up so fast, we didn’t have time to prepare,” she said.
‘People are upset’: chief
Peguis Chief Glenn Hudson says governmental response to date has been slow and ineffectual.
He has said he wants military help to fight the flood, but was told by the federal government that would be a last resort.
“People are upset. People are mad. When you see houses underwater like that, people are definitely mad about the situation.”
A spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada said Tuesday it is co-ordinating with the Red Cross and other agencies to help Peguis and other First Nations affected by flooding to determine their needs and provide funds for additional measures.
Band member Doug Thomas feels that First Nations people are often left to their own devices in times of disaster.
“When it’s farmers in the south side of the province, right away, there’s a quick response. They just leave us to our own demise and devices … they don’t care, that’s what it seems like. So it’s tough,” Thomas said.
He’s been gathering drone footage of the flood for the band’s emergency centre, which needs documentation to get compensation for damages.
“There’s houses that are completely underwater. There’s people’s whole life, their whole house flooded. It’s really hard to see it.”
He hopes the province and the federal government sees the footage and sees the impact on his community.
Billy Courchene is a veteran sandbagger, colloquially referred to as “Nature Boy” by community members.
“I’m just doing this because it’s my community, and it’s pretty much been a way of life for me since 1974, when we had a pretty bad flood,” Courchene said.
The trick to building a good dike, he says, is leaving a bit of room in the sandbag so that they stack tightly, like cement bricks.
On Tuesday, he was out sandbagging an older woman’s house who was taken to a senior centre.
He says he could see it on her face that she was grateful that people were working to save her house.
“I just feel good if I can help somebody. I wouldn’t want to lose my house.”
As for Thomson, she says she’ll stay as long as she can.
“Faith keeps me going. We go on — that’s our faith.”