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This article was published 7/9/2018 (501 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A Manitoba Hydro executive resigned as chairman of the Keeyask Hydropower Ltd. Partnership (KHLP) on Thursday, just hours before a York Factory First Nation’s chief called for his removal over allegations of racism, discrimination and sexual violence at the hands of workers at the massive construction project.
Lorne Midford, a Hydro vice-president, "voluntarily stepped down" Thursday, utility spokesperson Bruce Owen confirmed Friday afternoon, after York Factory Chief Leroy Constant urged the province to call an inquiry into the allegations.
"Manitoba and Manitoba Hydro need to acknowledge the collective and individual trauma that has been incurred through northern hydroelectric development in the province," Constant said at a press conference in the Winnipeg office of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, an advocacy group representing northern First Nations.
"Without a full understanding of the structural and systemic issues underpinning racism and violence on hydro projects, our people — and women in particular — will continue to be victimized."
The allegations of racism and abuse committed by Manitoba Hydro workers against Indigenous Peoples were outlined in a Manitoba Clean Environment Commission report dated in May, but released by the province on Aug. 21.
Constant said the offences began in the 1950s.
York Factory First Nation (YFFN), Tataskweyak Cree Nation, War Lake First Nation and Fox Lake Cree Nation are partnered with Hydro on the Keeyask project, located about 725 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg on the lower Nelson River.
Constant said complaints and attempts in the past to raise the issues of racism and abuse "fell on deaf ears" until now.
"It comes down to reconciliation and healing for our members who have experienced this. On Manitoba Hydro’s part, I think it will reveal what truly happened over the past 60 years historically," he said. "There’s a lot of hurt, there’s a lot of anger and our women especially suffer from the incidents that have occurred that they have held in for so many years."
Constant said Indigenous women are still being called "squaws" and other racial slurs, and "it has to stop."
"We’ve experienced this over many years, and the concern I have is that this is in our own territory and our own traditional areas," he said. "We’re subject to racism going into the general public as it is, and to be subject to it in our own community is not acceptable."
Evelyn Beardy, a York Factory councillor, said the harassment and abuse are continuing, as they have in decades past.
"Nothing has changed. Women are still treated the same as then. I think now that it’s come out, they feel that they have the support now, and things need to change. You can’t go on like that anymore," she said. "I want to see a day where, before the project is done, my member doesn’t phone me and say that she’s been called ‘a savage.’ Or she’s walking down the hallway and being groped."
Constant said a meeting was held earlier Friday morning with Hydro representatives to discuss how to improve the relationship.
Also Friday, Constant outlined a complaint from Louisa Constant, a York Factory representative on the KHLP board, against Midford. The complaint alleges harassment and inappropriate behaviour by Midford stemming from an emergency meeting on Aug. 30 and reacting to the reserve’s subsequent statement to the Free Press about experiences and issues at the Keeyask site.
The incident on which the complaint is centred is alleged to have taken place after the Aug. 30 meeting to discuss responses to media inquiries following the release of the Clean Environment Commission’s report. Leroy Constant said Midford had responded favourably at the meeting to York Factory’s concern that Indigenous partners should be involved in KHLP communications about the matters of racism and violence. He also committed to a review of the KHLP communications protocol, which states that Manitoba Hydro handles all communications on behalf of KHLP.
The complaint alleges "a personal attack" on Louisa Constant by Midford occurred after the meeting, during a phone call. He allegedly took issue with York Factory’s statement to the newspaper, accused Louisa Constant of preparing press statements in advance of the board’s discussion earlier that day and "threatened that the board would no longer review the communications protocol."
There was no response from Manitoba Hydro to a Free Press request for comment from Midford. Owen said he was not available.
"To ensure an open and objective review of these allegations, we will be conducting an independent investigation to determine if this complaint has merit," Owen said in an email. "No further statements will be issued."
On Tuesday, former KHLP board vice-president Martina Saunders revealed her experiences with KHLP, saying she had to resign her board seat last year because of bullying from Hydro employees. She worked with KHLP from December 2014 to February 2017.
"YFFN fully supports Martina Saunders in her efforts to share and address her experiences on the board," Leroy Constant said. "Hers is just one example of the ongoing experience of marginalization, and the struggle to have Indigenous voices heard and respected on these issues."
He said a provincial inquiry would need to address several issues.
"Issues include current structural problems within the KHLP, safety issues at the Keeyask project site, and a wide-ranging legacy of impacts from past hydroelectric developments. The efforts of the First Nations and Manitoba Hydro staff within the Keeyask partnership have not been able to stem the instances of racism, harassment and sexual violence at Keeyask," he said.
Updated on Saturday, September 8, 2018 at 7:00 AM CDT: Final