A half-century ago, when planning began in earnest for what would become Manitoba's first northern hydroelectric dam, aboriginal people in the Saskatchewan River delta west of Grand Rapids still lived off the land as they had done for untold generations.
"This was God's country. Everything was here," says Ralph Thomas, 63, standing on a small island on Cedar Lake -- all that is left of the original reserve after Manitoba Hydro flooded about 202,343 hectares of land to operate the Grand Rapids Generating Station.
Food was plentiful and people knew how to help each other, Thomas said. If someone killed a moose, everyone would get a chunk of moose meat. Trappers sold pelts for extra cash. "Life was good here," says Thomas. "We never experienced hardships. Families were self-sufficient."
A group of elders, journalists and the chiefs of Chemawawin and Misipawistik Cree Nation (formerly Grand Rapids First Nation) have journeyed an hour by boat on the artificially enhanced lake to view what remains of the original reserve. The tour was organized by an Ottawa public relations firm hired by Chemawawin, Misipawistik and Opaskwayak First Nations to draw attention to their lawsuit -- worth potentially tens of millions of dollars -- against the federal government.
The three claim Ottawa failed to protect their interests when Hydro and the province came knocking with plans to build a dam on the Saskatchewan River at Grand Rapids, 430 kilometres north of Winnipeg on the western shore of Lake Winnipeg.
Chemawawin First Nation was the most severely affected of the three Cree communities by the dam. The entire community was relocated to what is now Easterville, on the southeast shore of Cedar Lake, in 1964. The island outpost is its sole link with the past. A modest Anglican church, built in 1952, is the only surviving original structure. Meanwhile, the remainder of the old reserve -- including ancestral burial grounds -- lies beneath about 15 metres of water.
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Chief Clarence Easter drives his big pickup truck gingerly down a crater-filled Easterville street. Just ahead, a young woman is struggling to help a wheelchair-bound senior negotiate the same giant potholes.
"That's why I want to pave the roads," he tells a Free Press reporter and photographer along for a tour of the town, pointing to the pair.
Crumbling infrastructure is just one of the problems the chief of modern day Chemawawin First Nation must contend with. Crime, a housing shortage, a lack of year-round employment and the challenges of providing sewer and water services in a town sitting on limestone bedrock are also headaches.
Easter had just turned six when the reserve was relocated to Easterville. "I just had a birthday -- and we moved," he recalls. Hunting, gathering, trapping and fishing had been the basis of the local economy on the old reserve, but that was severely curtailed when the best lands were flooded.
Even gardening, which was common before, is now impossible because of the bedrock visible throughout the community.
"The (old) community was self-sufficient. Nobody was on welfare," Easter says.
That changed with the move to Easterville. The fishery faltered as mercury levels rose in the newly expanded lake and the water became hazardous to navigate because it was clogged with logs and debris created by flooding. Several fishers lost their lives in boating accidents, elders say.
Hydro supplied modest new houses for the 350 displaced Chemawawin and Metis residents and built an access road to the new site. But it did not rebuild their economy.
Today, the community, now with a population of 1,400, has an unemployment rate of about 50 per cent in winter. More people work in the summer, up to 75 per cent, since Hydro hires about 150 local people to clear logs and debris from the shoreline of Cedar Lake.
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Ovide Mercredi, chief of the Misipawistik Cree Nation (formerly Grand Rapids First Nation), laments the loss of the Saskatchewan River through his community and the rapids that inspired the name of the town. Both have been swallowed by a large artificial lake which feeds the massive hydro generating station which dominates the community.
"Those are all things that matter to us because we grew up with the Saskatchewan River, we grew up with the rapids," he says.
Mercredi, born in January 1946, spent the first three months of his life on a trapline in an area now flooded by the dam. As a teenager, he witnessed the dislocation and trauma created by the project.
"We were completely displaced by development and construction," he says of his family, who lived alongside the river where the dam is now located. "My father was not even given time to gather up the logs from the cabin that we lived in. That's how quickly our people were displaced by the province and Manitoba Hydro."
Mercredi would go on to study law at the University of Manitoba and become a constitutional lawyer. In the 1990s, he served as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations for six years, preceding Phil Fontaine, another Manitoban.
"My mother will tell you the story about how she lost her garden... and what happened to the soil," Mercredi says. "Hydro took the soil and they put that soil on the lawns of the Hydro employees." He laughs. "She still talks about it."
There were no constitutional lawyers in his community or in the neighbouring Chemawawin and Opaskwayak First Nations in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the province and Manitoba Hydro were planning what would, for a time, become North America's largest hydro dam. Most members of the community had a poor knowledge of English. They knew nothing about lawyers.
"They couldn't defend themselves," Mercredi said. The province and Hydro discussed the dam project with federal officials -- not with his people, he says.
In the intervening years, the three First Nations have received some compensation from Manitoba Hydro and the province for the devastation done to them and are now turning their attention to Ottawa. A lawsuit has been dragging on for nearly two decades and is still mired in pre-trial motions. The latest was in federal court in Winnipeg this past March where the communities sought the release of hundreds of federal documents they say bolster their case. Ottawa wants to keep them private, citing client confidentiality. A judge has reserved his decision.
The First Nations argue in their suit that Ottawa had a fiduciary responsibility to protect their interests during the dam project discussions. Instead, it allowed the Manitoba government and Hydro to destroy the communities' livelihood.
"They (the feds) were the ones who consented to have this done," Mercredi says. "They should have said no to Hydro, no to the province until they had an agreement. But we don't have an agreement."
The Cree communities can't afford a long legal battle and would much rather negotiate a settlement with Ottawa. But so far the feds have refused to come to the bargaining table. They've also refused to comment on the issue since it is before the courts.
"We're trying to get public support to force Canada to negotiate with us rather than litigate," Mercredi said.
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Getting the public's attention when you're a five-hour drive from the nearest big city isn't easy. So, the First Nations hired an Ottawa-based media relations company to help them get their cause into the public eye. The PR company, led by a former longtime broadcaster and Indian Affairs minister press secretary, did its job. Earlier this week, it lured the Free Press, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) and a slew of English and French CBC radio and television journalists on a two-day tour of Chemawawin First Nation and Misipawistik Cree Nation, the two communities most adversely affected by the dam.
The tour included a 50-kilometre boat trip to what's left of the old Chemawawin reserve, where the journalists had the opportunity to interview elders about their lives in the pre-flood days. The bells of musty old St. Alban's Anglican church, which is still used occasionally by the community, rang as reporters arrived, and the Rev. Michael Chartrand presided over a church service in English and Cree.
Journalists were also shown a marker erected a few years ago, listing 500 names from the church registry, going back to 1892. Their graves were flooded by the dam construction. The disturbance of burial grounds has been a constant source of pain to the Chemawawin and Misipawistik people. At Grand Rapids, graves were disturbed by blasting done during the construction of the dam; at Chemawawin, floodwaters have exposed coffins and skeletal remains.
At one point in the tour, Chemawawin elders lay flowers on Cedar Lake to commemorate ancestors buried below, while event organizers position them for the benefit of the photographers and TV camera operators.
But if the events are orchestrated, the emotions of the elders appear genuine.
"I feel sad coming back here," says Lorna George, 66, standing beside her 71-year-old sister Emma Ballantyne in the hot summer sun beside the Anglican church on the old reserve. George was married in the church in 1962 and had one child when her family and community were forced to move.
"There was no alcohol, no drugs. No violence. Not like in Easterville. All this is happening in Easterville," George says.
Her sister Emma recalls community events connected with the church, including summer picnics that lasted most of the day. The family used to boat to church from a nearby island that is now almost totally submerged.
Unlike in her early years, she says, her own children grew up with "nothing to do" at Easterville.
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Mercredi and Easter know that there's no going back to the old economy of hunting, trapping and gathering. Local commercial fishing has revived somewhat, but prices are low and most fishers earn less than $10,000 a year.
The chiefs want to use the money they expect to receive in a settlement from Ottawa to build the infrastructure needed to attract and develop new businesses and permanent jobs.
Premier Greg Selinger vowed this week to try to help bring the federal government to the bargaining table. Selinger made the commitment before attending an annual powwow at Grand Rapids this week along with deputy premier Eric Robinson, Finance Minister Rosann Wowchuk and Manitoba Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard.
There are some encouraging signs that the two communities most affected by the Hydro dam are making progress in joining the new economy. Misipawistik Cree Nation (1,600) now has a post-secondary graduation rate similar to many southern Manitoba towns, Mercredi boasts. And it is in talks with the University of Winnipeg to offer courses right in the community.
The First Nation is also building a new super truck stop, featuring showers and a lounge for truckers, at the junction of highways 6 and 60. A greenhouse, a Tim Hortons and a medical clinic are also contemplated or in development.
After decades of trying, Chemawawin First Nation recently received a new school for its 500 school kids and is now putting the finishing touches on 39 new houses that will virtually wipe out its housing deficit. While these homes are being completed, as many as 17 people are still cramming into a single modest house.
Although the First Nations have settled some claims with Manitoba and Hydro, they don't consider the compensation issue closed with these two entities. Mercredi said he wants his community to share in the wealth generated by the hydro dam that so dramatically affected the First Nation's lands.
"If I had that wealth, I would not wait for Ottawa to build a hospital. I would build it," he said. "I would not wait for Ottawa to live up to our treaty obligations to build a school on the reserve."