Backers of a First Nation's protest against Manitoba Hydro rallied Thursday at the Crown corporation's downtown headquarters.

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Backers of a First Nation's protest against Manitoba Hydro rallied Thursday at the Crown corporation's downtown headquarters.

The peaceful rally saw about 30 members of Pimicikamak First Nation protest over the Jenpeg generating station, located about 20 kilometres from Cross Lake, which is 525 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

Last week, about 600 Pimicikamak residents evicted Manitoba Hydro employees from the Jenpeg station grounds, protesting what they say is the Manitoba government's failure to honour the Northern Flood Agreement, signed in the 1970s after the Jenpeg station was built.

Pimicikamak council member Mervin Garrick spoke Thursday to the assembled crowd, representing Chief Cathy Merrick, who couldn't attend because her flight was cancelled. Garrick said the action is being taken to force the government to restore a fair relationship with Pimicikamak.

"They have not fulfilled their promise to do environmental cleanup... to maximize employment for our people... to eradicate mass poverty and mass unemployment," Garrick said, noting 287 residents right now lack power because Manitoba Hydro cut them off when they could not afford to pay power bills which, at about $600 per month, are among the highest in the province.

"We feel frustrated. We feel cheated. But we also feel determined," he said. "That is why we will stay at Jenpeg until the government and Hydro demonstrate that they are committed to restoring a fair relationship with Pimicikamak."

While the protest was peaceful, Hydro locked down its building at 4 p.m. and a police presence of at least five marked cars was seen parked a short distance away and around the block.

The province was given a list of five solutions in a meeting last Friday -- a public apology, environmental cleanup of the shorelines, a say in how water levels are managed, an aggressive PowerSmart program to lower the community's hydro bills and a revenue-sharing arrangement.

Garrick said the Pimicikamak people are waiting on a meeting between Chief Merrick and Premier Greg Selinger that will, they hope, propel the government into action.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Mervin Garrick speaks at a protest in Winnipeg Thursday.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Mervin Garrick speaks at a protest in Winnipeg Thursday.

Selinger, in an interview with The Canadian Press, said he's willing to consider the list of solutions.

"Some of these concerns are long-standing issues that go back several decades," he said. "They're asking for that to be paid attention to. We all believe in a spirit of reconciliation around these long-term flooding issues that happened decades ago, and we need to continue working on them."

Selinger said he supports the idea of energy-efficiency programs to lower the cost of hydro bills in the community. He said a revenue-sharing agreement is "not easily done but we think there's (a) possibility of doing that and we're open to that discussion as we go forward."

Stan Struthers, the minister responsible for Manitoba Hydro, told the Free Press the province has offered an advance payment of $1.8 million, a federal arbitrator has been appointed and power has been restored to some homes.

"It's coming on to the cold season, and we can't have Manitobans not hooked up to hydro as the winter approaches," Struthers said. "Hydro and the community have to work on a process of payment but we can't have Manitobans out in the cold."

Among several speakers at Thursday's rally were Derek Nepinak, the grand chief of the Manitoba Assembly of Chiefs, and Dalton McKay, the Pimicikamak youth council representative.

Hydro president and CEO Scott Thomson said in a press release seven Manitoba Hydro employees chose to remain inside the Jenpeg facility in the Pimicikamak territory to safely run the station. They have now surpassed their normal shift change. Both Hydro and the protesters told the employees they may leave at any time but the protesters said any workers who leave will not be allowed back in.

"Given the public risks associated with abandoning the station and the potential challenges of an evacuation, we are maintaining the status quo at present and this is being monitored around the clock. Perimeter security measures have been strengthened," Hydro spokesman Scott Powell told the Free Press on Thursday. "Our employees' decision to stay reflects an extraordinary commitment to Manitoba Hydro and to the customers we serve."

 

-- with files from The Canadian Press

ashley.prest@freepress.mb.ca