If Manitoba Hydro won’t send a crew to do repairs in Cross Lake First Nation because workers have been threatened, then call the police and deal with it, but don’t leave customers in limbo, says a spokesman for unionized Hydro workers.
"Electricity in Manitoba — especially in northern Manitoba — is an essential service," said Mike Velie, the spokesman for IBEW Local 2034 representing workers who operate, maintain and repair Manitoba Hydro facilities.
"It seems like Manitoba Hydro is playing a bully here."
Velie was responding to reports that Manitoba Hydro has refused to send crews to do repairs in Cross Lake because workers there have been threatened and 281 customers have not paid their bills.
Customers have threatened workers and refused to pay their bills in other places and whole neighbourhoods weren’t punished for it, he said.
"I’ve heard first-hand from people who’ve been threatened," said Velie who worked for Hydro for 22 years. "Typically, authorities get involved whether it’s in Transcona or Fort Garry or Cross Lake that the individuals dealt with," he said.
Having some "difficult customers" in an area shouldn’t prevent Manitoba Hydro from providing services to the good customers living there, Velie said.
"They shouldn’t say ‘We’re no longer going to provide service to Transcona because there’s some difficult customers there,’ " said Velie.
"If any of our members are feeling threatened at all, they can exercise their right to refuse dangerous work," he said.
In this case, he said Hydro should resolve the issue with the authorities and Cross Lake leadership.
It’s not that easy, said a spokesman for Manitoba Hydro.
"We’ve had, at times, a difficult relationship with the community depending on the political leadership," said Glenn Schneider.
The leadership council in power now has told residents not to pay for their electrical power, said Schneider. Using community radio broadcasts, it has told people not to pay their hydro bills, he said. Because of Hydro development, they’re telling band members they shouldn’t have to pay for their electricity, he added.
Schneider said Hydro tried contacting the chief and some members of council on Monday but was unsuccessful. For now, because of unpaid bills and threats, Manitoba Hydro workers won’t be sent into the community, he said. The situation involving one Cross Lake resident without hydro electricity for four days after a transformer fuse blew is "very unfortunate," said Schneider.
"She lives in a community where her political leaders have made decisions she now has to live with."
Schneider said Hydro won’t cut off electricity to customers in the winter but would impose a "limiter" to reduce the amount they receive.
The "load restricting device" offers enough (power) to run the fan on a gas furnace, a light or two and maybe a refrigerator," said Velie.
"I would urge Manitoba Hydro and Cross Lake to resolved their differences — whether it’s through mediation services or through the union with aboriginal elders," he said.
The electrical workers union now has 700 First Nations members and has created the position of "shop elders" to act as cultural liaisons for the aboriginal workers to deal with labour issues, said Velie.