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Power imbalance

First Nations say Hydro must promote reconciliation

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Members of the  Pimicikamak Cree Nation carry white crosses during a protest at Hydro's Jenpeg dam in 2007.

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Members of the Pimicikamak Cree Nation carry white crosses during a protest at Hydro's Jenpeg dam in 2007.

For 38 years, Manitoba Hydro has managed the level of the province's largest lake and the flow of its largest river. It does so by means of Lake Winnipeg regulation (LWR), which includes the Jenpeg control structure -- located near my people's main community of Cross Lake -- and three man-made channels that increase outflow from Lake Winnipeg into the Nelson River.

After operating LWR for 38 years under an interim licence, Hydro has applied for a permanent licence.

Hydro is requesting no change to the water levels and flows stipulated in the interim licence. Hydro is requesting continuation of business as usual. For us, business as usual is a disaster.

Society has changed since the interim licence was granted. Best practises in environmental management have changed. Recognition of aboriginal rights has changed. The final licence for LWR must reflect these changes.

In a report recently submitted to the Clean Environment Commission, which will hold hearings into LWR licensing next year, Hydro acknowledges that LWR "has significant effects" north of Lake Winnipeg and that these effects "have been most pronounced for aboriginal communities." For Pimicikamak, the nation I represent, those effects include:

  • Permanent flooding of 65 square kilometres;
  • Ongoing destabilization of hundreds of kilometres of shoreline, the most fragile and productive part of the ecosystem;
  • Corresponding harm to our traditional industries and way of life; and
  • Several deaths caused by treacherous ice conditions and submerged wood debris related directly to Hydro operations.

A homeland that was once intimately known, life-sustaining and beautiful is now dangerous and despoiled. Lake Winnipeg Regulation is a wound on our lands and in our hearts.

Every mention of "clean" energy is like salt in that wound. Every hydro bill is a reminder of the injustice we suffer.

Manitoba Hydro will say it has signed agreements with us and continues to address our concerns. An agreement does exist and Hydro has taken some measures, but the bitter reality is that the south is much better off as a result of the project and we are worse off.

As former Pimicikamak chief George Ross said, "the south is benefitting at the expense of our misery." This is why we cannot tolerate business as usual.

Hydro is not responsible for all the ills we experience, but it is in a good position to contribute to a better future. Hydro produces an average of over $3.5 million of electricity on the Nelson River every day. We are surrounded by tremendous wealth, but most of that wealth flows south down the transmission lines, leaving us poor and dependent on government. We don't want dependence.

There is an alternative. On July 2, Manitoba Conservation Minister Gord Mackintosh encouraged Hydro to work toward "reconciliation" with all hydro-affected peoples. I expect many Manitobans would welcome reconciliation, if it helped reverse the shameful inequality in our country.

Here's my four-part proposal for reconciliation, extending to LWR and beyond.

  • The premier should issue an apology to hydro-affected peoples for past and present harms caused by Hydro operations, which affect Manitoba's four largest rivers, three of its five largest lakes, and many smaller bodies of water.
  • The government should commission an independent and comprehensive review of how LWR and its twin, Churchill River Diversion, are operated in order to identify ways to better balance electricity generation with other uses and environmental mitigation. This would reflect best practices. It could complement the regional cumulative effects assessment that Hydro and Manitoba are carrying out (though without independent oversight or involvement of affected communities).
  • The government should involve affected communities in a multi-party process for ongoing decisions about LWR and other Hydro operations. Again, this would reflect best practices, and it would address the acknowledgement in Hydro's recent report that aboriginal communities have experienced "a sense of powerlessness and marginalization in decision-making processes affecting their lives."
  • The government should divert the water rental fees it receives from Hydro -- an average of $120 million annually -- to affected communities, which have a combined population of roughly 45,000. Payments would be tied directly to expertly developed, long-term community-development plans, and would be subject to stringent accountability mechanisms.

Benefit-sharing arrangements with aboriginal people affected by development have become common practice across much of Canada.

Like Pimicikamak, each affected community would have additional specific concerns to be addressed, but the above plan could serve as an overarching framework.

Next year, the government could issue a final licence for business as usual or it could use the occasion to make a bold commitment to tangible reconciliation.

I invite other hydro-affected peoples to stand up for this vision of reconciliation. And I invite all Manitobans to consider the value of such a path for the province as a whole.

Cathy Merrick is chief of the Pimicikamak executive council.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 25, 2014 A9


Updated on Monday, August 25, 2014 at 3:21 PM CDT: corrects typo

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