WHEN Ellen Cook passes by the Manitoba Hydro mural near Polo Park, she can easily imagine herself as one of those little girls playing along the shoreline of a pristine lake.
Unfortunately, the reality in her home community of Grand Rapids is not quite as picture perfect, says Cook, a retired teacher and co-chair of the Interchurch Council on Hydropower, which sponsored a photo exhibit of the damage due to hydro development in several northern Manitoba communities.
"I like looking at the pictures of the people (in the exhibit), because the other ones leave me with a sense of grief you never get over, grieving the land," she says of the 22 photos by Winnipegger Matthew Sawatzky in the exhibit titled Sad Sort of Clean.
"Our children and their children will never know what they're missing."
The photos are on display at Flatlanders Studio, Winnipeg Centre Vineyard, 782 Main St., until June 30. The exhibit was temporarily moved to Beausejour last weekend for the annual meeting of the Conference of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario of the United Church of Canada.
Last fall, Cook and Sawatzky traveled to five northern communities, where Sawatzky shot thousands of images of damaged shorelines, floating forests, and huge concrete dams, as well as portraits of several community members, including Cook's brother and sister. Cook conducted interviews for an accompanying video.
"I feel there's a strong theme of justice in this story," explains Sawatzky, 29, of his first photographic exhibit.
"This great (power) resource we have takes advantage of a small group of people so greater numbers of people can benefit."
Although the dams and generating stations are decades old, many Manitoba Hydro customers have never seen the effects of flooding, or understand that hydroelectricity may not be as green as the utility advertises, explains Will Braun, staff person for the council, which has representatives from Roman Catholic, United, Mennonite and Lutheran churches.
"It is low carbon energy, but just because dams don't have smokestacks doesn't mean they're clean," says Braun, who estimates about 80,000 kilometres of shoreline in northern Manitoba has been flooded, dammed, or altered.
A spokesperson for Manitoba Hydro says the utility recognizes the long term impact of flooding and altered water flows, and has attempted to lessen the effects where possible or offer compensation.
But Glenn Schneider wonders about the purpose of this particular exhibit and why the task force continues their public criticism about Hydro developments.
"The hydroelectric generating stations are not going away; we have done what is practical and reasonable to "clean up" and address the physical impacts and have developed a much better relationship with First Nation communities," Schneider writes in an email.
"We cannot, realistically, make all impacts go away."
Cook says talking about the impact of dams and flooding -- and promoting the exhibit --- is the only way she knows to bring about justice for her people and the environment they live in.
"This earth is sacred and we see the waters as the veins of Mother Earth and when you start pouring concrete into Mother Earth, it compromises our sacred waterways," says the grandmother of five who attends an Anglican church.
"How is that healthy, how is that green?"