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CDebates: The Wuskwatim Hydroelectric Deal

Responses to Peter Kulchyski’s article, “How to Build a Legacy of Hatred” (CD, vol. 38, no. 3)

Indigenous Politics

“Manitoba Hydro: How to Build a Legacy of Hatred,” by Peter Kulchyski, was first published in Canadian Dimension and has subsequently been circulated by people opposed to the proposed Wuskwatim hydroelectric project planned to be built in Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation’s Resource Management Area, in northern Manitoba.

Professor Kulchyski’s view is that this hydroelectric development project should be stopped, primarily to protect our “ancient way of life” and “traditional hunting economy.” In fact, we are no longer a hunter-gatherer society and cannot sustain ourselves with a hunting way of life.

We are a modern First Nation, with a fast-growing population of young people who want to maintain our Cree culture, but who also have dreams of successful lives as teachers, dentists, doctors, lawyers, engineers, artists, musicians, business leaders and trades people.

Kulchyski ignores this evolving story of our First Nation and the value of this new era of collaboration and cooperation with Manitoba Hydro to build a strong economic base for our First Nation.

This is building a brighter future, not a legacy of hatred.

If you do the research you will learn we have negotiated and structured a powerful partnership that will bring real benefits to our people (we did learn from the Churchill River Diversion and the Northern Flood Agreement, and this time we have worked from a position of strength, not ignorance and weakness).

Kulchyski does us no favour by demeaning what modicum of progress we have achieved within our community and what we have done to take charge of our destiny–getting beyond lawyers and consultants–to provide for the real needs of our people.

We are trying to build a new model for a sustainable First Nation economy that provides us with the resources to offer real opportunities for growth and development to our Members and other Aboriginal peoples of northern Manitoba.

We cannot be isolationists, as Kulchyski suggests. For too long our people have been trapped within a nineteenth-century standard of living. We want to catch up with the rest of Canadians.

Kulchyski on the other hand somehow thinks progress rests in hanging on to the past, fighting forever over the Northern Flood Agreement (NFA) and finding a way for thousands of our young people to make a living by hunting and fishing.

For many years we did fight for compensation, finally settling in 1996 when we signed the NFA Implementation Agreement. It provides compensation for damages caused by the Churchill River Diversion (CRD) and a framework for all future development in our Resource Management Area.

He refers to this 1996 Agreement as no more than a “cash buyout,” ignoring the obvious benefits to our community. In total we received about $118 million in compensation from Canada, Manitoba and Manitoba Hydro, including $65 million and other valuable benefits from the 1996 agreement. The compensation provides funding for our community trust, which in turn funds a variety of key community services and programs every year. Other valuable benefits include Hydro’s commitment to pay many thousands of dollars to maintain our arena over many years.

The 1996 agreement also improved on the NFA when it comes to land. Instead of four acres of land for each acre affected by CRD, we received 17 acres for each one, or a total of 55,000 acres. And, most importantly, it includes Article 8, which ensures no development can place in our Resource Management Area without our consultation and involvement.

Three other northern Manitoban First Nations signed similar agreements. We are supportive of all other Aboriginal groups as they continue to pursue their own path to self-sufficiency, including the communities of South Indian Lake and Cross Lake (Pimicikamak Cree Nation).

Kulchyski says the Wuskwatim deal we are currently negotiating with Manitoba Hydro is “deeply flawed” and should be more like the Peace of the Braves agreement the Cree of Québec settled for. In fact, no meaningful comparison can be drawn with the Summary of Understandings.

First, the projects are radically different in scope and in the magnitude of effects on the environment. For example, the proposed Wuskwatim Generating and Transmission Projects would cause less than 0.5 square kilometres of flooding, (less than 0.2 square miles) in the immediate vicinity of the dam, while around 833 square kilometres of flooding is anticipated by projects included in the Peace of the Braves agreement.

Second, the Peace of the Braves agreement is a government-to-government arrangement, which addresses a whole array of treaty issues, such as funding for government services, and a multitude of resource harvesting issues, including mining, forestry and hydroelectric.

Third, the SOU, published last year, isn’t an agreement as Kulchyski suggests. It is a non-binding document that sets the stage and provides a framework for negotiation between NCN and Manitoba Hydro for a binding Project Development Agreement (PDA). Even Manitoba’s independent Clean Environment Commission found the SOU and the Peace of the Braves agreement could not be meaningfully compared.

In any case, to suggest we are unable to negotiate an agreement for ourselves is demeaning and paternalistic. We are not like an animal being “tossed a poison bone,” as Kulchyski suggests.

In fact, we are confident the partnership we are negotiating with Manitoba is an excellent opportunity for our people. If the Project Development Agreement is democratically approved by a majority of our Members, it will mean we have an opportunity to own up to one third of the generating station. In addition, we are also negotiating an adverse effect compensation agreement to address any impact on our treaty rights and interests as set out in Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution.

Our council is acting openly and responsibly in the best interests of our people. The bottom line is that the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation is committed to fulfilling our vision to exercise sovereignty that sustains a prosperous socio-economic future. Taking part in the proposed development of the Wuskwatim Generating Station and Transmission Projects is consistent with this vision.

We urge your readers to learn more about the Wuskwatim project and how we are building a legacy of hope by visiting our website at www.ncncree.com.

Sincerely,

Chief Jerry Primrose, Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (NCN) W. Elvis Thomas, NCN Councillor and Future Development Portfolio Holder

Peter Kulchyski Responds:

I welcome the thoughtful remarks of Chief Primrose and Councillor Thomas of Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (NCN) regarding my article, “Building a Legacy of Hatred.” Without belaboring issues or repeating points, at the core of our dispute are two issues: whether the Summary of Understandings (SOU) regarding the Wuskwatim project signed between Manitoba Hydro and NCN (which is non-binding, as they point out, but will lead to a binding Project Development Agreement that will be subject to a community referendum) is a good deal compared to similar arrangements; and whether this is the right economic direction for the community to travel down.

Manitoba Hydro told the Manitoba Clean Environment Commission that the Peace of the Braves signed between the Government of Quebec, Quebec Hydro, and the Council of Crees of Quebec was not comparable to the Wuskwatim SOU because they are different kinds of deals: the former is a nation-to-nation treaty dealing with a range of issues including hydro development, the latter focused on a single project. The CEC accepted this logic, as do Chief Primrose and Councillor Thomas. However, this answer only begs the question: Why didn’t Manitoba have the vision to offer a deal as broad in scope as the Peace of the Braves? When we bear in mind that the Council of Crees were offered an equity arrangement similar to the Wuskwatim SOU and rejected it, the fallacy of the fact that the two are different kinds of deals becomes clear.

NCN and Manitoba Hydro keep saying the two deals “aren’t comparable” and avoid saying the obvious: Manitoba is offering less to Cree here than Quebec is offering to Cree there, both in dollar terms and in structural terms. Cree in Manitoba will invest in a project and possibly make money based on their risk-equity position. Cree in Quebec will get substantial funding at no risk. Cree in Manitoba, as co-owners, will have an objective interest in ensuring that the project economically “succeeds,” regardless of its impact on the environment. Cree in Quebec remain free to steward their lands and criticize harmful environmental consequences. The person who pays thousands more because they buy a car through a leasing arrangement may take little comfort from the fact that a person who bought their car outright, paying far less, has a different kind of deal that’s “not comparable.” The fact remains, you can chose what kind of deal you enter into.

As Primrose and Thomas note, the issues at stake here involve life ways. They charge me with wanting to keep NCN somehow “isolated” and insist they are a “modern First Nation” who cannot “sustain themselves with a hunting way of life.” What I find most troubling about the whole Wuskwatim debate is how First Nations leaders are making the arguments that colonial administrators were fond of making decades ago. Progress. Modernization. Development. These words have been hammers hitting at First Nations for more than one hundred years. In fact, what the twentieth century proved is that hunting, long predicted to be outdated, is a resilient, flexible, sustainable way of life that offers rewards of an incalculable sort.

In fact, I have always been talking in this debate about a modern hunting way of life, using contemporary technologies and a contemporary context. There is no solid research that supports the claim that northern First Nations like NCN can’t “sustain themselves with a hunting way of life,” and plenty of evidence to the contrary. Most of the healthy families in northern communities are hunting families.

What we do know from plenty of research is that large development projects, with their boom-and-bust cycles, are damaging for northern Aboriginal communities and bring with them the social pathologies all too evident across northern Canada. In the past these projects were imposed with no regard for Aboriginal and treaty rights. In the present they come wrapped in fancy packages with a few short-term jobs and some cash, still avoiding coming to grips with questions pertaining to rights. Given the damage these projects do to the real sustainable economy in the north, all I am suggesting is that the stakes are very large indeed, and therefore some tough questions should be asked about the wisdom of this deal. Chief Primrose and Councillor Thomas’s response does nothing to alleviate these concerns, but I welcome their dialogue.

Peter Kulchyski is head of the Department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba. He is a member of CD’s Editorial Collective.

This article appeared in the January/February 2005 issue of Canadian Dimension .

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