More than six years after being forced from their community by intense floods, dozens of families returned home to the Lake St. Martin First Nation in Manitoba.

About 1,400 people were forced to flee the reserve in May 2011, after houses in the community were completely destroyed by heavy spring floods.

They were left in a temporary state of limbo, with many staying in hotels and short-term rentals in Winnipeg and surrounding communities. More than $160 million was spent to house evacuees since the flood.

On Thursday, the families were given the keys to their news homes in Lake St. Martin, about 225 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.

Community members visited each of the homes, which were surrounded by freshly-laid sod, to celebrate the long-awaited return.

Chief Adrian Sinclair said it felt good to be back.

“It’s something new. It’s a start for the next generation,” he told CTV News.

The homecoming marks the first phase of an operation that will build 190 new houses in the reserve by the end of January. The new community was built a few kilometres from the old one, which has since become a ghost town.

For residents like Alex Traverse, returning home means teaching his young family about a different way of life.

“I got married in the city and I had my first daughter in the city. So my daughters don’t even know what it’s like to live on the reserve,” he said.

Others never got the chance to return home. An estimated 100 evacuees from the group of 1,400 died after leaving the First Nation. In some cases, suicide and homelessness were a factor.

Why it took six years to rebuild the small community has some, like Myrle Ballard, a university researcher and Lake St. Martin band member, grappling for answers. She believes no other community in Canada would’ve had to wait so long to move home.

“This is the 21st century and this is still happening. People are being displaced. They’re being sacrificed for the non-Indigenous people,” said Ballard.

In a statement today, Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott said, “Our government is committed to completing the work needed to get all remaining 2011 flood evacuees home.”

Members of Lake St. Martin are still waiting to receive part of a $90-million settlement filed with other First Nations communities against the federal and provincial governments.

In the class-action lawsuit, the communities alleged that the province caused the flood “knowingly and recklessly” in Indigenous communities by pushing excessive amounts of floodwater into Lake Manitoba. About 4,000 members were involved in the lawsuit.

At least 60 community members helped rebuild the houses alongside Matix Lumber, which won a $32-million contract for the construction efforts.

With a report from CTV’s Manitoba Bureau Chief Jill Macyshon