Ovide has sauntered off to get some ducks. The rest of us sit and chat, idly, nurturing the fire and snacking on bannock. A few jokes are tossed around: Mayor Robbie Buck, a large man with a quick wit, keeps everyone’s spirits high. Although when we hear shots a few comments about whether the Chief has injured himself are tossed around, no one is surprised when he returns with two ducks for two shots. The duck soup I’m eating, it turns out, comes from the Chief’s catch the day before.
For the past few nights, Ovide Mercredi, chief of the Grand Rapids First Nation (and, as everyone knows, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations) and Robbie Buck, mayor of the municipality of Grand Rapids, have been camping on the “spillway.” They are camping there to prevent Manitoba Hydro from alleviating the pressure on its giant water reserves by allowing its spillway dam to open, which would release a huge volume of water onto the dry riverbed. Hydro is already running as much water through the generator as they can, so the camp – only a few kilometres off Highway 6 at a turnoff about a kilometre before it reaches the community – may create a major headache for them.
The camp is in an area of low brush on what used to be the riverbed of the Saskatchewan River. Some of the local people, who come out to show support, chat, or bring or eat some food or tea, tell me that this bay was an area where people used to catch fish from shore. It’s a welcoming bunch of people, and the place exudes the relaxed pace and friendliness of camp life. They even put up with the red star on my green Cuban hat!
The Last Straw
The spark that lit this fire was a notice sent by Hydro via fax, announcing imperiously that the spillway would be opened in two days. Earlier in the summer, Mayor Buck tells me, officials had told locals that the spillway likely wouldn’t be opened at all. Fishermen from Grand Rapids to places like Waboden, who rely on Lake Winnipeg or the Nelson River, are fed up with the debris released by Hydro into the waters every year. With evident frustration, they show me photos of fish nets saturated with logs and willow bushes. The people at Grand Rapids want to cut out the brush in the spillway before it gets crried into the rivers and lakes. That’s why they asked earlier in the summer what the plans were. They got the usual assurances from distracted bureaucrats. Then they got a copy of an announcement made to the general public – no phone calls, no special acknowledgement. Just a nameless fax.
It was the last straw. Newly elected Chief Mercredi, having taken the decision to return to his community rather than get on the consulting, board, academic, or government gravy train awaiting him, was not happy about the $5.5 million Hydro had given his community as compensation for the devastation caused by this 1960s project. Mayor Buck, in the midst of compensation negotiations, had been fighting for years to have Hydro take his community’s claims seriously, and was only too happy to join the new chief in the protest.
The Grand Rapids hydro project silenced a mighty river and harnessed its power in the sixties, when negotiations with First Nations were not politically required or practiced. Hydro built a beautiful suburban town for its own employees, and allowed the local hunters and fishermen to sink into a malaise. Today a comparison of the Hydro and Aboriginal communities at Grand Rapids would be enough to belie anyone’s sense that Canada does not create its own race- and class-divided communities.
My former high-school classmate, Gerald McKay, who sits on the town council, tells me the municipalityhas formally approved building a sign next to the “Welcome To Grand Rapids” – the sign Hydro sponsored. The new one will say: “Welcome To Ground Zero. Hydro Profits Near Two Billion Dollars. Compensation: Zero.” Gerald also takes me to see ancient trails on the banks of the old riverbed, burial sites disturbed by the massive effort to build a dike for the project.
The paltry, belated compensation funds offered this First Nation, and the paucity of imagination suffusing negotiations with the municipality, are manifestations of a public corporation that simply does not care about the indigenous people who live on the territories that produce its profits. The word “Hydro” is a curse, here, rarely used without other expletives attached.
I set up my tent, and spend the night with Chief Mercredi and Mayor Buck. The Mayor, it turns out, plays guitar and has a way with country tunes. The Chief is quiet and calm, showing an ease and determination that perhaps come with having his feet on home ground. Someone brings Robbie a large air mattress so he can sleep more comfortably. Throughout the next day, visitors come and go. When I leave that evening there are at least 20 people – families mostly – sitting in a large circle around the fire with the two leaders.
When I return the next weekend, a full-fledged music festival is gathering. About 80 people drop in and out that evening, and all get their fill of moose-rib stew and cream pie. The teens, who have been learning to play fiddle, show their talents for an hour or so, and then a local master fiddler and a few guitarists take over. Soon some plywood sheets are set up as a dance floor, and square dancing and jigging get started. Ovide takes evident pleasure in teaching some of the youngsters some jig steps and teasing the older ladies about dancing with him. Everyone harasses Mayor Buck (he’s just called “mayor”) until he sings a few songs.
It’s spitting rain, but the generator keeps working – the music is amplified, there are lights and we move in and out from under the tarps as darkness settles around the outer edges of the camp. Something that deserves the name “community” is re-enacted here; there’s a warmth and friendliness that passes among us. Even the visiting white folk are teased into dancing!
The Suits Show Up
It appears that some of the decision makers have noticed this event. Bob Brennen, president of Manitoba Hydro, visits on Wednesday, September 15 (heaven forbid he ruin his long weekend). He appears remorseful that the corporation he’s spent his life working for has such a bad reputation. But apart from a few generalizations, not much comes of the meeting, and the camp stays up. Premier Gary Doer travels up for a meeting at which the larger issues are raised. It’s the first time a sitting premier has come up to Grand Rapids since the early sixties, when Duff Roblin came to announce how much prosperity the dam was going to bring.
Elders Charles Osborne and Gideon McKay, along with Jackson Osborne and William Osborne, from Pimicikamak Cree Nation – a community that has invented a range of creative tactics in their own struggles with Hydro – are among the visitors from other communities. They come to deliver a strong set of messages. They talk about many things, but one powerful part of their message even crosses the boundary of language: how a lone wolf gives a weak howl, just loud enough to be heard by another. It responds, and slowly, other wolves hear the call and respond, and as their responses bounce back and forth they gather strength, until finally the power of the wolf nation is unmistakable.
In a small camp on a dry riverbed near the west shore of Lake Winnipeg, in the place where once great rapids with a healing power are now only a distant memory, the wolf has begun to howl.
Author’s Postscript: The camp was taken down shortly after a meeting with Premier Doer on September 22. Doer was apparently impressed and moved by the presentations he saw at Grand Rapids. A high-level consultation process has been established to examine the larger issues raised.
This article appeared in the November/December 2005 issue of Canadian Dimension (Will the WTO Survive Hong Kong?).