Manitoba Hydro officials met with organizers of the Wuskwatim blockade Friday night in hopes of settling the dispute.

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This article was published 14/8/2009 (4703 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Several band members from Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation constructed a roadblock at the entrance to the Wuskwatim dam in northern Manitoba on Thursday, Aug. 13. The blockade was set up between Highway 391 and the security gate to the dam. The proposed 200-megawatt generating-station dam is located about 45 kilometres southwest of Thompson on the Burntwood River. The band chief and council did not sanction the blockade.

CHRIS BRYNE / SPECIAL TO THE FREE PRESS

Several band members from Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation constructed a roadblock at the entrance to the Wuskwatim dam in northern Manitoba on Thursday, Aug. 13. The blockade was set up between Highway 391 and the security gate to the dam. The proposed 200-megawatt generating-station dam is located about 45 kilometres southwest of Thompson on the Burntwood River. The band chief and council did not sanction the blockade.

Manitoba Hydro officials met with organizers of the Wuskwatim blockade Friday night in hopes of settling the dispute.

Manitoba Hydro spokesman Glenn Schneider said senior utility officials flew to the site late in the afternoon and were to meet late in the evening.

"We're hoping these talks will lead to a resolution," Schneider said.

By 8 p.m. Friday, there was nothing new to report.

The blockade, consisting of protesters, their vehicles and logs, went up Thursday on a private road leading to the Wuskwatim dam construction site, keeping about 880 Manitoba Hydro workers inside the work camp.

The blockade organizers are protesting the lack of jobs given to residents of the nearby Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (NCN), which entered into a partnership with Manitoba Hydro on the $1.3 billion project.

The dam construction site is located about 45 kilometres southwest of Thompson, along the Burntwood River. Access to the site is from a private road off Highway 391.

When the dam project is completed, NCN has an opportunity to acquire a 33 per cent stake in it. Included in the partnership agreement between NCN and Manitoba Hydro are employment provisions that give hiring priority to qualified NCN members before other aboriginals and non-aboriginals.

Negotiations between the NCN chief and the blockade organizers resulted in Hydro workers being allowed to walk through the blockade, and 18 had done that Friday.

But Schneider said that wasn't much of a concession, adding it only helped those individuals who could arrange for someone to pick them up on the highway.

Manitoba Hydro and NCN officials refused to ask the RCMP to dismantle the blockade and the RCMP said their officers will be at the scene to ensure it remains peaceful.

NCN Chief Jimmy Moore said the dispute revolves around the employment issue, adding he hoped that having Hydro officials at the site would lead to the blockade being dismantled.

"We will have the Hydro officials there who can make the decisions," Moore said.

Schneider said that of the 880 workers on the site now, 44 are from NCN and 32 per cent of the total workforce -- 283 workers -- are aboriginal.

Since the project began in August 2006, Hydro maintains that of the 2,554 hires, half have been aboriginal and 424 workers, 17 per cent, have been from NCN.

Schneider said the hiring of qualified aboriginals who have registered with the provincial Job Referral Service remains the objective of hiring practices on the site, adding qualified non-aboriginals have been hired only when qualified aboriginals could not be found.

Moore said the blockade is not supported by the NCN council, adding he realizes the project's costs could climb as a result of the protest.

"It will cost us money if we don't allow people to go through," Moore said.

Moore said Grand Chief Ron Evans of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs was to join Hydro officials at the blockade.

aldo.santin@freepress.mb.ca