Keeyask blockade served injunction

Roussin endorses plan to bring new workers to Hydro site; Indigenous leaders fear spread of COVID-19


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A group of Tataskweyak Cree Nation elders and leaders blocking traffic access to Manitoba Hydro’s Keeyask project site were served an injunction by the Crown corporation Monday afternoon.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/05/2020 (1110 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A group of Tataskweyak Cree Nation elders and leaders blocking traffic access to Manitoba Hydro’s Keeyask project site were served an injunction by the Crown corporation Monday afternoon.

The protest began Friday in opposition to Hydro’s plan to bring up to 1,000 new workers into the community during a staggered shift change beginning today, a plan community leaders say disregards their safety and well-being.

“Our protest was and will be peaceful,” Tataskweyak Chief Doreen Spence said Monday. “We informed the RCMP of our intentions, and we have not, and do not intend to, disrupt traffic going anywhere other than the Keeyask site.”

Spence said the lockdown of access is meant to keep the community, the workers, and the region — which has thus far prevented any cases of COVID-19 — safe.

“For the better part of the 20th century, Tataskweyak and other Indigenous communities have disproportionately borne the brunt of disease brought in from outsiders (and) the impacts of hydroelectric development in the province,” she said. “An outbreak of COVID-19 in our community will continue this cycle and devastate our community.”

The Keeyask generating station project is being developed by Hydro alongside York Factory and War Lake First Nations, as well as Tataskweyak and Fox Lake Cree Nations.

Hydro did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday on the injunction, but on Saturday, media relations spokesman Bruce Owen said the shift change followed the plans and protocols of Manitoba Health.

In an affidavit filed May 18 to the Queen’s Bench Winnipeg Centre and shared with the Free Press, chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said he endorsed, reviewed and consulted on Hydro’s protocols, and that they met current public health guidelines.

Roussin said in the affidavit the work rotation would include some employees or contractors travelling from other provinces and countries, adding that Hydro will require a 14-day self-isolation period and a screening with a negative COVID-19 test on the day of travel to the construction site.

In an affidavit in support of the injunction, David Bowen, the director of the Keeyask project, said the blockade prevented crucial materials from reaching the site and would make the planned workforce rotation “impossible to implement.”

Bowen said Hydro suspended travel to the Keeyask camp on March 22, while scaling its workforce down to 512 from pre-pandemic levels of 1,400 workers. He said the workers on-site need relief. In Hydro’s statement of claim, they say lost revenue resulting from the traffic delays or stoppages amount to $10.5 million per month. The statement also alleges there is “no scientific or medical basis” to the claim the new workers will put northern Manitobans at greater risk.

In the affidavit, Bowen expressed concerns the situation could block access for food trucked in to the site; as of May 15, he says there was enough food on-site to last just seven days.

“Based on the current COVID-19 situation, the fact that there have been no confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 at the project site, and consultations with regional and provincial health authorities, (Hydro) has decided to resume a pre-pandemic work schedule, while maintaining a reduced workforce of approximately 1,000 workers,” he wrote in his statement.

That total includes Manitoban workers as well as others from across Canada and from other countries; at most, 200 out-of-province workers are due, Bowen wrote, adding that fewer than 10 international travellers will be required.

Bowen wrote that since March, Hydro has been “open” with Tataskweyak about its plans for COVID-19 prevention. However, local leaders like Spence and Tataskweyak band councillor Nathan Neckoway say their concerns haven’t been adequately addressed.

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee arrived at the traffic lockdown Monday afternoon, and was heavily critical of Hydro’s decision-making.

“This is a case where our values are different from theirs,” he said. “We value the lives of humans more than anything else. We value our First Nations’ safety and well-being over corporate interests. That’s something that makes us who we are.”

“It appears their interests are not our interests,” he added, pointing out that four Indigenous communities are partners in the project. “I think it’s unethical for a corporate entity to push their own agenda at the expense of human lives and the safety of our people.”

Settee said the project is important, but not essential or worth risking the health of communities particularly vulnerable to virus transmission during a global pandemic. “Our first priority is the safety of our people,” he said. Neckoway said chiefs from Fox Lake, York Landing, and War Lake also opposed the influx of workers.

Niki Ashton, the Member of Parliament for Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, called Hydro’s actions arrogant and colonial.

“I would say this really speaks to how little (Hydro) values Indigenous lives and the lives of working people,” Ashton said Monday. “This is a slap in the face to one of their four First Nation partners on this project, which has invested in it, has people working on it, and whose territory it is on.”

Neckoway pointed out that the return of workers today means many people will have to travel from southern Manitoba north of the 53rd parallel — something the provincial government is not currently permitting.

He said despite the injunction, there are no plans to budge from Provincial Road 280, where the group will continue to notify traffic it’s their mission to protect the region from COVID-19 while allowing residents access.

“We are doing this for the betterment of northern Manitoba residents,” he said. “We will stand to protect our people against COVID-19.”

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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