Volume 38, Number 3: May/June 2004

Manitoba Hydro

How To Build A Legacy Of Hatred

Northern Manitoba, with some of the oldest “contact” history on the North American continent, owing to its central position in the English fur trade, has over the last century become a Canadian backwater, rarely gaining attention even in alternative news sources. Although a crucial struggle took place in the seventies over hydroelectric development, the entire Aboriginal community of South Indian Lake relocated as a result of planned flooding, the conflict did not in general gain the kind of media attention generated by the James Bay Cree or the Dene of the Northwest Territories. Perhaps that is why Manitoba Hydro and the Government of Manitoba feel they can quietly get away with writing another page of colonial history on Cree territory.

Following the twists and turns of this conflict is not easy, but a bit of background is helpful. The community of Nelson House signed Treaty 5 in an adhesion in 1908. Since the treaty purported to surrender Aboriginal land ownership, the Cree of Manitoba were not in a position to negotiate a modern treaty along the model of the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement of 1975. In fact, in the mid-seventies Manitoba Hydro and its government partner thought they could do what they wanted without any Aboriginal consent, and it was only the determined opposition of five communities that lead to a Northern Flood Agreement (NFA) in 1977.

The NFA madesome big promises. For example, in a Schedule attached to it the communities were promised “the eradication of mass poverty and mass unemployment. A decade later, however, the government of Manitoba and its publicly owned power utility decided the promises in the NFA were too big, and moved to negotiate what are misleadingly called “implementation agreements” – effectively cash buyouts of the promises made in the NFA. To date, only one of the five communities, Cross Lake (centre of the Pimicikamak Cree Nation), has courageously refused the buyout and continues to lobby for real implementation of the NFA.

South Indian Lake

The community affected most by the 1970s developments, South Indian Lake, did not have reserve status. It was considered by government a “sub-community” of Nelson House and still does not have separate band status, though citizens of South Indian Lake consider themselves a separate nation. It was not a separate signatory to the NFA, though, through some interesting legal chicanery, it signed an implementation agreement in the early nineties.

Among the stories that circulate in South Indian Lake: Houses for the relocated community were built in southern Manitoba. In the move up north, insulation settled in the houses’ walls, leaving foot-long gaps beneath the roofs. The houses were heated electrically, and the heat poured out of these gaps. These “new” houses remain in use to this day. Small wonder some people in the community had their power cut off for failing to pay the bills charged by the company that flooded their lands and left them with inadequate housing.

Although Manitoba Hydro assured everyone that the environmental impacts of the project would be minimal, and no environmental review was conducted, in fact, the projects had devastating effects. The Churchill River was diverted so that it would flow into the Nelson and add to the latter’s rate of flow. A dam was built near the south end of the Nelson, which effectively turned Lake Winnipeg into a giant water reservoir whose levels could be managed by engineers. The Nelson River, once a pristine source of life, became silty and dangerous. At the time, local people and independent engineers questioned the supposed neutral impact of the project; but their objections were swept aside.

I remember watching propaganda films in the sixties boasting that the new hydroelectric energy would have no negative environmental consequences. The hubris of Manitoba Hydro’s engineers was trusted absolutely by a variety of Manitoba governments, including the NDP government of Ed Schreyer. Only after the project was complete did its real impact become clear.

A generation of Aboriginal leaders who had grown up going out on the land for emotional and material sustenance suddenly found their territory irreparably damaged: logs blocking access to shores; undrinkable water; water levels that fluctuated according to no locally known logic, making travel unsafe; interred bodies exposed; islands slowly washed away. Hence, it is but a small wonder that the first wave of hydro development created a legacy of distrust and even hatred toward Manitoba Hydro on the part of many Aboriginal peoples.

We are now seeing Manitoba’s own version of “Phase Two,” as a new premier and new corporate directors hear “the rustle of gold under their feet,” to quote from a speech made by a chief during treaty negotiations. The current plan is to develop three new dams, the first at Wuskwatim, near Nelson House.

The Wuskwatim Dam Project

Knowing that public support for the plan will be easier to generate with a modicum of Aboriginal consent, an agreement with the Nelson House band council, entitled “The Summary of Understandings between Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation and Manitoba Hydro with Respect to the Wuskwatim Project,” was negotiated in October, 2003.

It should be noted that the current Nelson House band council (part of the Nisichawaysihk Cree Nation) came to office in a deeply divided election, in which their own Election Appeals Committee recommended re-holding the vote. The community operates under a “custom system” set up through the Indian Act: It is basically a community-determined electoral system with a constitution that provides for an Election Appeals Committee. Several individuals who were not eligible to run in the election for a variety of reasons did, in fact, run, thereby splitting some of the opposition votes. There were a other irregularities. The elected band council could rely on band funds to fight for its legitimacy, even as its own Appeals Committee and anyone who wanted to contest the election had to use their own resources. Eventually outside courts determined that the current council could continue to sit, but its legitimacy is questioned by many in the community.

A Flawed Deal

The deal itself is deeply flawed, especially when compared with the “Peace of the Brave” (see article by Brian Craik on page 25). The agreement basically involves a loan by Manitoba Hydro to Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (NCN) so they can assume up to a one-third-equity position in the project. That is, by assuming joint risk, they will become minority owners. They are not being compensated for developments taking place on their lands, nor are they being made into nation-to-nation partners in economic development. Rather, they are being tossed a poisoned bone. The corporations being established to build and manage the project can hold meetings without having Cree representatives present (quorum is a simple majority). Although some changes were made to the design of the project at Cree insistence, the language on environmental protection is quite weak (like using the word “normally” to describe the parameters of water-level movement).

The Summary of Understandings (SOU) is clearly not a treaty and is not even binding. There are no standards in place to ensure fair process in the vote that must be held to ratify the final agreement that would ultimately flow from the SOU. One academic, Steven Hoffman of the University of St. Thomas in the U.S., has said that “the agreement represents not the end of colonialism but its zenith.”

At a January conference at the University of Winnipeg, Minister of Energy Tim Sale held up the Wuskwatim project as a way of meeting Kyoto Accord targets, leading to cutbacks of coal emissions in the production of power in favour of “greener” hydroelectric power from northern Manitoba. It would be good for the environment, good for the economy, good for everyone, according to the Minister. But try calling this a “greener” power source when you travel on the Nelson River with local leaders and have to carry bottled water, as I did in the spring of 2003.

There is no doubt southerners will experience benefits from the project, including less expensive power bills, less expensive power supplies for a variety of industries (private capital) and some capital accumulation by the Manitoba government. The costs are all borne by northern Aboriginal peoples, especially the hunters who rely on their ecological context to sustain an ancient way of life.

At the recent Clean Environment Commission hearings on the project, held in Winnipeg and Thompson, the commissioners heard some emotional testimony from the Displaced Residents of South Indian Lake, from the Justice Seekers of Nelson House and from a variety of individuals from the community and nation. The divisions between South Indian Lake and Nelson House were clear, as were the divisions within Nelson House between a leadership determined to impose its new vision, who have gone so far as to pay community supporters a per diem to attend the hearings, and those from the community who at their own expense and some risk are determined to speak out against it. These speakers especially were concerned that their traditional hunting economy was once again being underestimated, that their northern homeland was again being seen as a colonial frontier (to slightly rewrite the terms of Thomas Berger’s famous inquiry).

Why does Manitoba feel it should give its Aboriginal citizens less than Québec appears willing to put on the table? Have no lessons been learned from the northern Manitoba debacle of the seventies? If the project goes ahead on these terms, I fear that we, along with the concrete we pour and the bush we bulldoze, we will build another legacy of hatred in Cree country.

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

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