Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Where's the money? Hydro asked

Tory MLA demands utility account for First Nation's compensation funds

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A drawing of the planned of Keeyask Dam generating station. Tory MLA Ron Schuler is having a hard time following the money.

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A drawing of the planned of Keeyask Dam generating station. Tory MLA Ron Schuler is having a hard time following the money.

The brown envelopes and boxes of paper stream into Progressive Conservative MLA Ron Schuler's office at the legislative building.

Since being appointed Manitoba Hydro critic for the PCs last winter, Schuler has not only become an expert on the Crown utility, but also an unlikely advocate for members of a northern First Nation who are struggling with Hydro's plans to build the Keeyask generating station.

Tataskweyak Cree Nation, which was recently evacuated because of forest fires, has become the focus of questioning by Schuler in the legislature. He wants to know where millions of dollars have gone in compensation related to the Keeyask project, which is to go into service in about a decade.

The more questions he asks of Dave Chomiak, the energy and mines minister, Schuler said the more information is slipped his way on Keeyask and its impact on Tataskweyak Cree Nation and its 2,600 members. TCN is about 772 kilometres north of Winnipeg on the Lower Nelson River.

"I think when we got into this it was more about accountability related to Manitoba Hydro," Schuler said in an interview. "Where's the money gone? A lot of money has been spent pre-construction, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of accountability with that kind of money.

"Hydro is so big, it is so enormous, that it is hard to get in. I was overwhelmed. It's like trying to find a needle in a needle haystack trying to find what's what."

Schuler's questions have mostly focused on two projects on which money has been advanced to TCN. They include funds to build a new recreation centre and new sewage system before construction begins on the 695-megawatt Keeyask project, which is estimated to cost $6.2 billion.

'A lot of money has been spent pre-construction, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of accountability with that kind of money'SFlb -- Tory MLA Ron Schuler

Keeyask has yet to be vetted by the Clean Environment Commission and the Public Utilities Board, which is in the early stages of conducting an in-depth review of whether it and its partner generating station, Conawapa, are needed.

Schuler said about $2.3-million for sewer and water upgrades has been allocated to the band by Hydro, which issued the funds on behalf of the federal government. Another $6 million has been spent by Hydro for a rec centre -- including funding for its annual operating costs -- which has yet to be built.

"These were the sort of things that would improve the quality of life," Schuler said. "These are things we take almost for granted."

The money is part of the 2009 Joint Keeyask Development Agreement in which $360 million would be funnelled to TCN and three other First Nations over 25 years as part of a joint-ownership deal for the generating station. Fox Lake, War Lake and York Factory are also involved in the agreement. There are also rumblings at Fox Lake some members do not support the Keeyask project.

Helping Schuler are several TCN dissidents, including band councillor Solange Garson, who has fought for about three years trying to track down the money and where it was or wasn't spent.

Garson said the sewage-treatment system is only partially done and several homes in the community regularly see raw sewage back up into their bathtubs.

"This should have been dealt with years ago," she said. "Every time I go home it's like it's become a slum reserve.

'Chomiak has to get his head out of the sand and find out what is happening in my community' -- TCN band councillor Solange Garson

"Chomiak has to get his head out of the sand and find out what is happening in my community. It's taxpayers' money and we have every right to see where that money is going."

Chomiak said it's not that simple for government or Hydro to step in and tell an independent First Nation what it should be doing.

"If you had to name the worst problem that we have in Manitoba, it's the gap between First Nation communities and the rest of Manitoba," Chomiak said.

"In almost everything that we do, like our partnership with Keeyask, it is all directed towards providing First Nations with the resources and capacity-building.

"To then take Manitoba Hydro and make them the boogeyman, and use Manitoba Hydro as the vehicle to attack First Nations, is not helpful."

Chomiak also said the TCN has spent $7 million so far on sewer and water upgrades and an announcement on the new rec centre will be made soon.

TCN Chief Michael Garson was unavailable for comment.

"We don't have ability to go in there and tell them how to spend their money anymore than I can go to the City of Winnipeg and tell them what to do," Chomiak said.

He said what's sidelined some of what's been accomplished at TCN are the "persistent" claims being made by Solange Garson money has been misappropriated. Some of those claims are the subject of a defamation case before the courts.

Chomiak added a recent audit found accounting issues but no material breaches.

"(When Keeyask is built) this community will have jobs and economic development for generations," Chomiak said.

Schuler said TCN must have a higher level of accountability regardless of its First Nation status. And accountability rests with Chomiak as minister responsible for Manitoba Hydro.

"No bank, no financial organization, nobody who pays to have something built, gives the money and says, 'See you later.'

"To just hand over the cash without paying off invoices is foolish. The minister can demand accountability."

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 19, 2013 A5

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