OTTAWA — Former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall is facing pushback ahead of a meeting this week with northern Manitoba chiefs as part of the Pallister government’s review of Hydro cost overruns.
Wall’s employer, Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, has represented both Hydro and the province in recent cases against First Nations and Métis groups. Indigenous leaders allege a conflict of interest, which Wall insists doesn't exist.
In October 2018, the Manitoba government asked former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell to lead an economic review of Bipole III and the Keeyask generating station, two Hydro megaprojects that went millions over-budget during the former NDP government.
After allegations of sexual assault (which Campbell denies), the province replaced Campbell with Wall in November 2019, giving him powers as commissioner to subpoena witnesses and produce documents.
Wall has a teleconference scheduled Wednesday with First Nations near the Keeyask site, some of whom feel uneasy about Wall’s ties with Osler.
"It just doesn't make sense to me," Tataskweyak Cree Nation Chief Doreen Spence told the Free Press. "This is the same law firm that was in charge of placing this injunction order on us."
In May, Spence’s community, also known as Split Lake, lead a blockade of the Keeyask site, over concerns Manitoba Hydro hadn’t adequately consulted on a plan to fly in workers from outside the province during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Osler successfully got an injunction on Hydro’s behalf, to have demonstrators arrested. The Crown corporation negotiated a peaceful resolution with the four bands involved in the project.
However, the injunction still exists, which Spence said leaves Hydro with the upper hand. Her community is still trying to get it shelved.
Band members in other communities near the Keeyask site have raised similar concerns, but their leaders declined interviews or did not respond Monday and Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the Manitoba Metis Federation was aghast when the Pallister government used the services of Osler in a dispute over a $67.5 million payout related to a transmission line to Minnesota.
That’s because the firm’s namesake, Britton Bath Osler (1839-1901), helped secure the conviction of Métis leader Louis Riel for treason, which lead to his hanging.
MMF president David Chartrand spoke with Wall on May 21. He said he thinks highly of the former Saskatchewan premier, but said the MMF is appealing the Minnesota lawsuit, which only ended in March, and could again put Osler in court against the Métis.
"We are concerned. I’ve got to trust that Brad Wall will do what’s right," Chartrand said. "But from the forefront, it doesn’t look right."
In an email, Wall said he hadn’t heard anyone raise a possible conflict of interest when he’s met or scheduled meetings with Indigenous groups.
Wall added he is not a lawyer (Osler's website lists him as a special adviser, based in Calgary), this year's cases occurred well after the period he is reviewing, and his role as commissioner is as an independent contractor, not as an Osler employee.
"Prior to accepting engagements I assure there are no conflicts or potential conflicts, and there is no conflict of interest here," he wrote.
The Manitoba NDP want Wall taken off the review.
"There is a lot of mistrust when it comes to Brad Wall coming in there, with his ties to Osler," said MLA Ian Bushie, the party’s Indigenous affairs critic.
A spokeswoman for Crown Services Minister Jeff Wharton said Wall was uniquely qualified for the job. "These historical matters have nothing do with any recent litigation," reads a statement.