Manitoba Hydro's partnership with Tataskweyak Cree Nation at Split Lake forms the political foundation of its proposed $5.6-billion Keeyask Dam, but that foundation is showing cracks.
Hydro and the provincial government have proudly presented their partnerships with TCN and other First Nations as a beacon of ethical development to World Bank officials, American energy customers, industry leaders at the 2011 International Hydropower Association conference and, in all likelihood, to participants at the recent Earth Summit in Brazil.
But last month, as I rattled down the dusty roads of Split Lake, I saw desperately little that would give the utility or government cause for pride.
Despite having received over $92 million to cover process costs under the partnership model -- TCN's share of the $223 million Hydro has given various First Nations to participate in negotiations and studies -- and despite having received another $54 million in hydro-related compensation in the past 20 years, the community of 2,200 endures living conditions no partner of theirs could boast of.
Acute housing problems are obvious. Roads are more pothole than road. Some homes lack water and sewer hookups. There is no resident doctor, no community hall, and limited employment -- more than 550 people depend on social assistance.
The elaborate Keeyask Centre that was to have been built with $4 million from Hydro does not exist.
I was invited to Split Lake to see firsthand this contrast between the reality of many community members and the rarified realm of Hydro negotiations.
For decades, TCN lands have been profoundly affected by dams both upstream and downstream on the Nelson River.
Nonetheless, in 2009 the community voted to accept an agreement by which it agreed to partner with Hydro on the Keeyask dam, which is to be built 58 kilometres downstream of Split Lake. In exchange, TCN was given the option to purchase a 13.9 per cent stake in the multibillion-dollar project.
The dam has yet to undergo public hearings and licensing processes, though work has begun on an access road. A TCN company was awarded that work.
The partnership arrangement has resulted in deep divisions in the community.
I met with dozens of people who are fed up. For them, the overriding question is simple: Where has all the money gone?
Stories of extravagant spending on travel and per diems -- most of them hard to verify -- swirl around the community.
Hydro won't disclose spending details and community members say their leaders won't either.
Bits of information have emerged, usually via the proverbial backdoor, but still, millions are spent in the shadows, where the light of public scrutiny cannot reach.
We do know of the $92 million in process costs paid to TCN (as the majority partner in an entity called Cree Nation Partners), $61.5 million has gone to lawyers, consultants and external advisers.
Much of the money earmarked for TCN never makes it up north.
In fact, much of it only crosses Portage Avenue, from Hydro's headquarters to the office Hobbs and Associates, TCN's main consultancy firm.
Hobbs is a household name in Split Lake. The fact the firm reaps millions from TCN's process year after year, while so many in the community suffer, is the cause of simmering resentment in Split Lake.
It's not clear how much of the $61.5 million has gone to Hobbs and how much has gone to other advisers.
As Hydro has said publicly, TCN requires technical expertise, but surely a far greater proportion of money could go to employing TCN members and building TCN capacity.
Fox Lake Cree Nation -- one of the other partners -- has done much more in this regard.
Those who would say TCN members lack expertise, and thus have to depend on outsiders, should know that according to the legal obligations of Hydro and government under the Northern Flood Agreement, they should have been training TCN members to participate in "all works and operations" related to the hydro system since 1977.
No training is needed to see Hydro's partnership model works much better for some than for others.
Hydro is not the sole cause of hardship in the community and it is not responsible to remedy all ills.
Nor are process monies -- like the $92 million -- intended for housing or roads.
But what kind of partnership is it when so many people feel excluded and when $146 million (the $92 million plus $54 million in compensation) can be spent with so little discernible benefit to people who face poverty every day?
Thirty-five years ago, Hydro and government pledged their "best efforts to ensure that potential benefits of the Project [be] made available in a practical manner to the residents of each Reserve."
The 1977 Northern Flood Agreement set as a goal "the eradication of mass poverty and mass unemployment."
Subsequent agreements, and indeed the new partnership model, essentially extend this promise to share a slice of the hydro pie with TCN and other affected communities.
There is plenty of pie to go around.
The four dams that lie within TCN's traditional territory produce, on average, more than $3 million worth of hydro electricity every day.
Since 1977, when Lake Winnipeg Regulation and Churchill River Diversion went into full operation, the hydro system has brought in about $44 billion in revenue and $3 billion in profits (all figures in 2011 dollars).
Another $3.5 billion has gone into government coffers for taxes and water rental fees.
The people of Split Lake deserve effective access to a generous portion of that abundance. The province as a whole would be better for it. Then we would have something to be truly proud of.
Hydro's partnership with TCN might look good as a power point presentation in a swank Brazilian conference centre, but on the ground in Split Lake it looks downright shabby.
By pouring millions into its heralded relationship with TCN, Hydro may have obtained legal consent to build Keeyask, but an arrangement that foments such deep resentment, and lacks transparency and accountability, is a shaky foundation upon which to build an already risky project.
Will Braun works for the Interfaith Task Force on Northern Hydro Development.