A freeze on First Nations hydro bills, ordered by the Public Utilities Board, would save 17,000 on-reserve households an average of $93.60 on their heating bills next winter, according to a Manitoba Hydro estimate.

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This article was published 2/5/2018 (1304 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A freeze on First Nations hydro bills, ordered by the Public Utilities Board, would save 17,000 on-reserve households an average of $93.60 on their heating bills next winter, according to a Manitoba Hydro estimate.

The PUB ordered Hydro to freeze 2018-19 rates for reserve homes as part of its decision Tuesday, in which it rejected the Crown corporation’s request for a 7.9 per cent annual rate increase.

Instead, it will allow overall rates to rise 3.6 per cent.

"The creation of a new rate class and freeze on rates for First Nations living on reserve is a good first step. Much more work needs to be done in order to address the inequality and disproportionate impact of high electricity bills on reserve," Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said Wednesday.

The average annual bill for a home on a First Nation is about $2,600, which varies due to weather, said Hydro spokesman Bruce Owen.

However, Liberal MLA Judy Klassen said heating costs can be as high as $1,400 a month on some remote reserves, which would save residents $50 monthly.

"The significance of this order really can’t be overstated. It’s an opportunity for Manitoba and Manitoba Hydro to turn the page on their relationship with First Nations in Manitoba, recognize that First Nations are partners and honour the promises of the treaties," said Corey Shefman, a lawyer working on behalf of the AMC.

"First Nations face unique circumstances associated with high energy costs and disproportionate rates of energy poverty. Those reasons, in addition to the need for reconciliation, is why this order was so necessary and important."

Energy bills for reserve homes vary greatly depending on the age and quality of the house, the length and severity of the winter, and the condition of insulation, windows, doors and roofs, Shefman said.

"Generally speaking, hydro bills for homes on reserve will be more expensive than similarly sized homes off-reserve because of challenges associated with making on-reserve homes energy efficient, as well as the serious shortage of homes on reserve, which means that each home has more people living in it," said the Toronto lawyer.

"I have clients who tell me that their Hydro bills are regularly anywhere between 11/2 times and three times the bills of their family members who live in similarly sized homes in towns and cities."

The PUB also recommended the province develop a comprehensive bill affordability plan that would help low-income Manitobans anywhere in the province pay their hydro bills.

There was no specific plan proposed Tuesday and Crown Services Minister Cliff Cullen would not commit the provincial government to implementing the recommendation.

Social Planning Council of Winnipeg community animator and veteran anti-poverty activist Josh Brandon said his organization had submitted a lengthy proposal to the PUB that could cost the province anywhere from $3.5 million to $36.7 million a year.

"At the lower estimate, it would partly cover households spending more than 10 per cent of income on hydro; the upper estimate would cap household spending on hydro at six per cent of income," Brandon said.

"As many as 14.3 per cent of Manitoba Hydro residential customers (over 80,000 households) could benefit from a hydro affordability program, depending on its design."

Rather than seeking to have any bill affordability plan also apply to First Nations communities, the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak would prefer to have direct access to resources, MKO Grand Chief Sheila North said.

"I think we have to say that what we need more is resource-revenue-sharing models implemented and our treaty rights to lands and resources respected. We can take care of ourselves if we have the resources to do so," she said.

Meanwhile, Manitoba Metis Federation president David Chartrand questioned why the PUB order only applies to on-reserve First Nations households.

He said he would contact the PUB to point out that 70 per cent of Métis people live in poverty.