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The blockades are set to come down, an injunction order will be lifted and Manitoba Hydro crews will begin entering northern Manitoba in a phased-in approach after four Cree Nations reached an agreement with the provincial Crown corporation over the Keeyask construction site Sunday.
According to a statement from Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, the reserves — Tataskweyak Cree Nation, Fox Lake Cree Nation, War Lake First Nation and York Factory Cree Nation — reached the agreement with Hydro after meeting with president and CEO Jay Grewal on Saturday.
"In the meeting that took place (Saturday), there was a hope and a belief that things would get better, and there was a mutual understanding between the two entities and consensus was achieved and the respect that the First Nations wanted," said MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee in an interview Sunday. "I think there’s an opportunity for the relationship to be repaired, and also that they can move forward together in partnership and lead to the finishing of the project."
Manitoba Hydro has been in conflict with the four First Nations for weeks after the provincial Crown corporation planned to carry out a shift transition at the Keeyask Generating Station in northern Manitoba. The transition, originally slated to start May 19, would have involved 700 Keeyask employees leaving the site.
Twelve-hundred employees were to replace them at the site from various parts of Canada and the United States. Chiefs opposed such a huge shift change, arguing the novel coronavirus could be introduced to northern Manitoba.
"We have asked Manitoba Hydro to work with us in a better way to move forward with the project. First Nations, like other Manitobans, have made many sacrifices to restrict the transmission of COVID-19," said Tataskweyak Cree Nation Chief Doreen Spence in the statement.
"While we absolutely want our economies to open up and succeed, we are ultimately most concerned about the well-being and health of our citizens during this uncertain period. We want to keep everyone safe from this virus."
The Tataskweyak Cree Nation and Fox Lake Cree Nation began blocking access points to the Keeyask construction site on reserve land, with Tataskweyak Cree Nation responsible for two blockades on the north access points, and Fox Lake Cree Nation covering the southern access road. The longest running blockade, outside Tataskweyak, was set up for 10 days. Chief Spence was served with an injunction on Wednesday.
"This was an extremely frustrating and unnecessary situation. If Manitoba Hydro had fully engaged with its Cree partners from the beginning, this situation would not have happened," York Factory First Nation’s Chief Leroy Constant said in the statement. "We are living in a pandemic and we know what is best for our communities."
Settee said the First Nations were concerned for the safety of their communities—which have been heeding social distancing, self-isolation and quarantine regulations since the onset of the pandemic—but felt they were not being included in Manitoba Hydro’s decision making process.
"From the First Nations perspective, the safety of our people is paramount, because the people in the North are the most vulnerable, and we saw that as a risk— when you bring in a large group of people in a short period of time...that could be disastrous," Settee said.
"That was the bottom line, those were the concerns that were raised from the beginning, but they were not being heeded."
The agreement reached Sunday between the four chiefs and Manitoba Hydro includes the removal of the blockades, lifting of the injunction against Tataskweyak Cree Nation and an in-person meeting between Manitoba Hydro’s CEO and the leadership of the four Cree Nations.
The agreement also ensures Manitoba Hydro will be able to gradually resume construction activities at the Keeyask site, and later a gradual implementation of the project plan. The corporation has agreed to move new employees onto the site in phases, adhering to self-isolation and quarantine regulations, Settee said.
Fox Lake Cree Nation told the Free Press Sunday that the nation removed restrictions to the Keeyask southern access road that morning.
"Manitoba Hydro’s CEO has meaningfully engaged Keeyask Cree Nation leadership and has committed to work in partnership on pandemic planning as requested," Chief Billy Beardy said in a statement to the Free Press. "Fox Lake looks forward to continued work by all parties as we keep our communities safe during this unprecedented time."
Representatives from Manitoba Hydro did not respond to Free Press requests for comment by publication time. Hydro had said the blockade at cost the utility $1.7 million a day.
Last Monday, a Winnipeg judge issued an injunction, allowing the RCMP to remove the blockades.
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.
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Updated on Sunday, May 24, 2020 at 5:44 PM CDT: Adds details: phased-in introduction of workers
11:20 PM: Edited