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The federal government is irresponsible to leave Manitoba's first nations to bear the brunt of this year's flooding alone, Canada's national chief said yesterday.

Phil Fontaine, head of the Assembly of First Nations, said aboriginal communities across Canada face flooding every year, but Ottawa chooses to blame the victims rather than help them.

While many Manitoba towns are surrounded by permanent dikes and Winnipeg is protected by a floodway that diverts water around the city, some aboriginal reserves within the floodplain don't have any kind of protection.

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Indian Affairs has said first nations get money each year from Ottawa and it is up to them to decide how to spend it.

"The federal government knows its role here," Mr. Fontaine said in an interview. "The federal government is being irresponsible and completely unfair to place the onus on the community to fix the situation when it didn't create the problem in the first place."

The swollen Red River has forced more than 2,400 people from their homes in Manitoba this year - half of them from native communities.

The province estimates at least 500 houses have been damaged so far. About 300 of them are on the Peguis Reserve about 250 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

What began as a "flood of inconvenience" has culminated in some of the highest water levels on record. The Red River, which has crested virtually everywhere in the province as it moves northward to Lake Winnipeg, covers nearly 1,700 square kilometres across southern Manitoba.

In the short term, Mr. Fontaine said the province has a duty to protect all its citizens, including those on reserves. But he said the long-term solution rests with Ottawa.

"We didn't cause the flooding," he said. "We're at the receiving end. We suffer the consequences from flooding. We don't have the resources nor the means to ensure our communities are protected."

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The floodwaters are now receding across much of Manitoba. Emergency Measures Minister Steve Ashton said the province will start to turn its attention to helping people get disaster assistance and looking at how it can can beef up flood protection.

Given that Manitoba natives are bearing much of the damage and inconvenience of this flood, Mr. Ashton said flood-proofing their communities will be a priority. He said he is meeting with Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl on April 28 to discuss the issue.

"I don't want to in any way, shape or form blame the first nations community," said Mr. Ashton, adding that residents of Peguis were forced to relocate in the floodplain by European settlers.

"They didn't choose to be in Peguis. It is flood-prone. The key message out of this is we all have to do a better job on mitigation."

As floodwaters slowly start to recede, officials say wind and rain remain the only major threats to much of flood-stricken Manitoba.

Precipitation is expected to pass south of Manitoba later this week, but forecasters say the province is in for a few days of strong winds, which could whip up water as much as half a metre.

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"The good news over the last 48 to 72 hours has been the stabilizing of the initial flood situation, but clearly it's still out there," Mr. Ashton said. "Until the floodwaters recede in a very significant way - which will take weeks - obviously we're going to continue to be very vigilant."

Although many people are now turning their focus from staving off floodwaters to cleaning up the mess left behind, Mr. Ashton said this year's flood is a long way from being over.

The Souris River near the Saskatchewan border is still rising and threatening about 1,000 residents in the town of Melita. The crest there has been downgraded, but crews have constructed sandbag dikes and the province has pledged $500,000 to upgrade Melita's permanent earth dike.

Officials are also warning residents with private wells to get their water tested before drinking it. The province is waiving the normal fee charged for the testing of well water. So far, 200 samples have been submitted for testing, but officials expect that number will go up as people return to their homes.

About half a dozen sewage lagoons have overflowed in the province, and officials warn that well water can get contaminated during a flood. They are recommending people in flooded areas with private wells boil water if contamination is suspected. The Canadian Press

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