December 6, 2019

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Fox Lake almost missed out delivering its incriminating testimony, leaders say

John Woods / The Canadian Press files</p>

John Woods / The Canadian Press files

Decades of trauma broke over remote Fox Lake Cree Nation this week like a tsunami.

Leaders with Makeso Sakahikan Inninuwak discussed the aftermath Thursday, and their hopes for a new future where the First Nation's position and influence is restored in the northern Manitoba town of Gillam, some 765 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

It was their first media interview since the province abruptly released a damning report that contained historic allegations of sexual abuse, discrimination and racism by Manitoba Hydro workers over a half-century of development in the north.

"I wish the province would have called before all of this," Chief Walter Spence said. "We were overwhelmed by it.

"There was no heads-up. And instead of being angry, it reopened the wounds, the experiences of our members who passed on and the ones still (here)."

Spence and Robert Wavey — chief executive officer of Fox Lake Cree Nation and a former deputy minister of aboriginal affairs with the province — and band councillor Sophie Lockhart took part in a wide-ranging conference call Thursday.

Lockhart is an elder who testified before the Clean Environment Commission (an arm's-length provincial agency) about construction workers sexually abusing her and her friends, after getting them inebriated in bouts of abuse 40 years ago.

Testimony from residents of Fox Lake was among the most shocking in the CEC's review of the regional cumulative effects for hydroelectric developments on the Nelson, Burntwood and Churchill river systems.

Four of Manitoba Hydro’s generating stations and supporting infrastructure are located within a 100-km stretch of the Nelson River, within Fox Lake traditional territory.

The impact was so severe, one elder compared it to the horrors of residential schools.

Remarkably, Fox Lake was almost left out of the report. Its leaders disclosed the commission was close to completing its work last year, when Fox Lake reminded the CEC it had not yet testified.

"We didn’t catch it until they wrote us that they were compiling their report. So I asked, ‘What about us?’" Wavey recalled.

The result was a Jan. 19 special hearing at a Winnipeg hotel, with the commission flying in a dozen community members spanning three generations. "We organized it to explain our cumulative effects by generation," Wavey said.

Despite strides in their relationships with Manitoba Hydro as a business partner, Fox Lake residents say they are still the targets of discrimination and abuse.

"It’s still going on. Not to the extent it was back... in the 60s. But, certainly, it still happens. That’s the point that everyone missed in this whole testimony: it’s still happening," Wavey said.

Gillam, with a population of roughly 1,000, is a primary staging area for northern hydro development, and is a mecca for temporary workers.

Manitoba Hydro offered a comment Thursday on the ongoing nature of its efforts to create a safe workplace environment and protect community members. Nearly half its workforce is Indigenous, it said.

"Today, with the full involvement of our partners, all Hydro and contractor staff have to undergo cross-cultural training as part of their employment on the Keeyask (generating station) project," Hydro spokesman Scott Powell said.

Lockhart testified in January how sexual assault nearly destroyed her life, and her children's lives. It's taken decades to regain her balance, she said.

"At the dams... I was abused in a lot of ways, along with my friends. Then, I drank so much that my children were apprehended. I knew I had to do something about my drinking because of the all issues I’ve been carrying... Oct. 13, 1985, was my sobriety date. I’ll have 33 years in this year."

Five months ago, she saw her first great-grandchild, a girl, born.

"What I would like to see is a treatment centre (in the Fox Lake area), for all the issues, sexual abuse, addiction, everything," Lockhart said.

After the report broke this week, Fox Lake invited Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister to a private meeting with the community.

"When you look at the history of First Nations, in Fox Lake, there’s been a unique situation. We were the most impacted, with hydroelectric projects... as well, we were impacted with residential schools and with... the 60s Scoop. We need the two levels of government to come here, to work on a process to rebuild our community," the chief said.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

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