Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A dam-fine future

Co-operating with affected First Nations means projects seen as blessing rather than blight

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WUSKWATIM -- Jimmy Hunter-Spence points to a set of whitewater falls in the distance.

He says it's the last place Manitoba Hydro will blow up, changing this remote part of the province forever.

And he's OK with that.

As a young boy, he travelled this part of the Burntwood River to go into Thompson, about 100 kilometres by road to the east.

"It was our highway," the 68-year-old Hunter-Spence says, recalling how he canoed down the river.

"I'll never forgive Hydro for what they did to us before, but this," he says, gesturing with his head the enormous Wuskwatim Dam in front of us, "I'm OK with it for the sake of our children. I say 'Go.' "

Wuskwatim is Manitoba Hydro's newest hydro electric generating station. It's by far the largest construction project in the province at $1.6 billion. By comparison, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is to cost $310 million, and the new football stadium at the University of Manitoba will have $190-million price tag.

The Free Press toured the site on Thursday on a media trip organized by Manitoba Hydro.

Wuskwatim's three giant turbines -- they'll switch on one by one starting early next year -- will produce 200 megawatts of electricity that will feed into Hydro's already-existing transmission system.

For Hunter-Spence and the 4,400 members of the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (NCN), formerly the Nelson House First Nation, the new dam that's been carved by explosives and heavy machinery into the bedrock will be a gold mine.

Marcel Moody, an NCN councillor and one of the architects of the band's partnership with Manitoba Hydro, estimates the dam's profits will earn up to $40 million a year when it's fully operating. The goal is for NCN to own 33 per cent of the dam. Many band members have also worked on the project, some even finding careers they can take elsewhere when the dam is finished.

NCN will use that money for, among other things, building new houses and roads and sending young people to school in the south.

"We will also use that money to invest elsewhere in Canada," Moody says. "We want to be participating in the province's economy." NCN's unemployment rate hovers around 80 per cent, with many people collecting welfare, Moody adds.

In the beginning, there were doubts among many band members about NCN's partnership with Hydro. Everyone knew the Crown corporation's Churchill River Diversion in the 1970s and the flooding of 837 square kilometres at Southern Indian Lake had changed the landscape for the Cree in more ways than one.

When Wuskwatim was proposed, they weren't going to be flooded again, Hunter-Spence says.

The original plan called for the dam to generate 350 megawatts, an amount that would require flooding on Wuskwatim Lake and beyond. The Cree said "No" and the project was downscaled so flooding will be minimal. Effectively, the project now will only increase the size of Wuskwatim Lake just above the dam, when that last explosion blows up Wuskwatim Falls.

It's what's happening 800 kilometres north of Winnipeg, Moody and Hunter-Spence say, that's getting lost in the political debate in the south over the direction Hydro's new Bipole III transmission line should take.

"Our people gave up a few things to make this happen," Hunter-Spence says. "But the return is going to be great."

For Hydro, the Bipole debate overshadows its plans to build two more dams using Wuskwatim as the template for future co-owner partnerships with other First Nations. On the drawing board is the Keeyask and the massive Conawapa projects and the plan to sell more power to Minnesota and Wisconsin.

"We want to give hope to our people," Moody says, standing above the dam's roaring spillway. "I see it happening. The potential is there."

"We didn't want other people to give us money to do this," Hunter-Spence adds. "We did it on our own."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 25, 2011 A6

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