Peguis First Nation resident Cheryl Thomson wears two large black garbage bags – one for each leg – as makeshift waders. She needs it to get to her home, which is now surrounded by knee-deep flood water.
His house is one of about 700 damaged by floods this year. Despite an evacuation order, the 61-year-old man remains on site.
She stays to help the helpers: she works at the community grocery store as a cashier, which stayed open to feed the sandbags.
More than 1,300 evacuees were evicted from the community of Interlake, located 160 kilometers north of Winnipeg. Many of them now stay in hotels in Winnipeg.
The entire lower level of the Thomson home she’s lived in since 2008 is underwater, her porch floats, her sweat lodge is destroyed, and the house has no heat or running water.
“As the water rose we could hear ‘pop, pop’ – a circuit breaker had tripped,” Thomson said.
She has never seen the inside of her house flooded like this. Peguis experienced major flooding in 2009, 2011 and 2014, and Thomson has always been able to keep the water out with sandbags.
“This year, [the water] came so fast, we didn’t have time to prepare,” she said.
“People are upset”: the leader
Peguis chief Glenn Hudson says the government response to date has been slow and ineffective.
He said he wanted military help to fight the flood, but the federal government told him it would be a last resort.
“People are upset. People are angry. When you see houses underwater like that, people are definitely angry about the situation.”
A spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada said Tuesday it is coordinating with the Red Cross and other agencies to help Peguis and other flood-affected First Nations determine their needs and provide funding for additional measures.
Band member Doug Thomas says First Nations people are often on their own when disaster strikes.
“When it comes to farmers in the south of the province, immediately there is a quick response. They just leave us to our own deaths and our own devices…they don’t care, that’s what it seems. So it’s difficult,” Thomas said. .
He gathered drone footage of the flooding for the group’s emergency center, which needs documentation to get compensation for the damage.
“There are houses that are completely under water. There are people’s whole lives, their whole house flooded. It’s really hard to see.”
He hopes the province and federal government will see the footage and see 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 been pretty much a way of life for me since 1974 when we had a pretty bad flood,” Courchene said.
The trick to building a good sea wall, he says, is to leave some room in the sandbags so they stack tightly, like cement bricks.
On Tuesday, he was putting sandbags in the home of an elderly woman who was taken to a center for the elderly.
He says he could see on her face that she was grateful that people were working to save her home.
“I feel good if I can help someone. I wouldn’t want to lose my house.”
As for Thomson, she says she will stay as long as she can.
“Faith keeps me going. We keep going – it’s our faith.”