In the Words of Our Forefathers

Manitoba’s Recurring BiPole III Transmission Line Debate

In light of the up-coming elections in Manitoba, the BiPole III transmission line is back on the debating table. Of course, sticking to a decision that supports a small Aboriginal community in its self-determination is definitely something to be debated at the Manitoba Legislative building. But no one asked nor even thought of asking the community to come and speak up about the issue that could influence them directly.

I have been following the news reports about the BiPole III project for a few years now as part of my research for my Doctorate degree. The arguments going back and forth in the newspapers, in the televised news stories and in various levels of governments, I am not too surprised at why the community of Poplar River First Nation has been so “quiet” throughout this thunderous East Side/West Side issue. I suppose words are irrelevant when your actions are momentous; words are irrelevant when no one is listening either.

Typical of a researcher curiosity, I attended the BiPole III Coalition at the legislative building in Winnipeg recently. The Coalition is a group composed of mostly farmers that are attempting to move the BiPole III 500kv transmission line project back to the East Side of Lake Winnipeg. For those out of the loop, the NDP government decided to support the UNESCO World Heritage Site initiative of the East Side First Nations by not only donating $10 million dollars to the Pimachiowin Aki foundation, but also moving the proposed Manitoba Hydro’s BiPole III project from the east side of the lake to the West Side. This move will protect the archaic boreal forest of eastern Manitoba from non-renewable resource development.

On this cold September day, about 50 members of this Coalition showed up; they were supported by the Opposition party leader Mr. McFadyen himself. Few individuals, myself included, also showed up to show support for the East Side and the World Heritage Site proposal, including some Green Party hopefuls. During the rally, we found ourselves amazed at, not the Coalition’s arguments against the BiPole, but at the arguments for the BiPole III to be placed on the East Side. The words used in the speeches of the Coalition members, of the government representative, of the one professor that showed up in the pouring rain, brought me back to my high-school days of my colonial-based Canadian history lessons.

The farmers argued that the “monstrosity” of this project will deeply impact the farming community. They insisted that this huge project would collide with the farming way of life because the large corridors that are needed for the transmission line towers will create “scars” in their fertile fields. The Coalition affirmed that, by sitting on their decks, their view would consist of metallic power lines that would have detrimental effects of their health and their crop. Why does this bring me back to high school? I distinctively remember learning about the important role that farmers played in the formation of the Canadian State. I recall my teacher maintaining that Canada has so much available fertile land, that the farming way of life is part of the Canadian heritage, and that nothing is better than watching your crop grow. I remember this, thinking that if I want to be a good Canadian, I’d better get my hoe and scythe out!

So, the argument for ignoring Aboriginal rights to land and self-determination in 2011 is the same as the arguments Canadian forefathers used when colonizing this land in the 1800s. The argument that the East Side is not fertile because you cannot grow crop, and hence is does not need to be protected from “development” like the transmission line, is still being used to ignore the First Nations community that is seeking to preserve its land from any destructive changes. The notion that farmers are more efficient users of the land and hence need to be protected is more valid than the Aboriginal people’s use of land through hunting, fishing and sustaining the health of their land. The cases for moving the BiPole back to Aboriginal lands were reiterated on the assumption that First Nations in this region are not going to be affected by the transmission lines because they are not living on the land where the lines will run. In fact, they merely occupy parcels of that East Side country, and on occasion, they hunt in-land and fish from the rivers. (One individual tried to convince me that there are no animals on the east Side of Lake Winnipeg because the forest is dead (huh?!) and that the animals like to be where the transmission lines are, where the pipelines are, where the development is).

Nonetheless, the Coalition persisted that local population of the East Side will never see the lines and will not be directly impacted by them like the farmers would be. Seeing that the farmers are “users” of the earth and First Nations are apparently not profiting from all lands under their stewardship, the essence of the arguments comes down to the unrelenting colonial notion that the East Side of Lake Winnipeg is still relatively terra nullius.

Despite evidence to the contrary, the coalition and the PC government maintain the argument of their forefathers: that Canada’s natural resources are “wasting away” unused, that farmlands are much more valuable that hunting areas, and that Aboriginal people have nothing to say in Canada’s development. The essentially uninhabited land that First Nations on the east side of Lake Winnipeg occupy, can still be protected, but only as a memory of the great Canadian heritage: its past and definitely not its future.

Agnieszka Pawlowska is a Ph.D. Candidate in Native Studies at the University of Manitoba.