They came to the University of Winnipeg from northern Manitoba, from the U.S., and from as far away as Brazil, Panama and Nepal. But the hundreds of participants in this weekend’s Ki Ta Ski Naw 2019 International Conference had one experience in common: they had all witnessed the harms of hydroelectric development on their home communities.
"Any kind of mega-development, bad things happen, usually to the Indigenous people in surrounding communities," explained Leslie Dysart, CEO of the Community Association of South Indian Lake (O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation). "The profits go away to the higher-ups, and the communities face the direct impacts."
Those impacts include poverty, unemployment and subsequent drug and alcohol abuse, said Carol Kobliski with the First Nation Safety Office of Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, also known as Nelson House. She said promised jobs for local Indigenous workers end up being menial labour, and only last for the duration of the projects. First Nations partnerships with Manitoba Hydro aren’t building prosperous communities, she said.
"If you were to come into Nelson House, I think the only thing you’re going to see that was changed was, they have a police detachment in there, they have a women’s shelter for battered women and they got a treatment centre," said Kobliski.
'Any kind of mega-development, bad things happen, usually to the Indigenous people in surrounding communities… The profits go away to the higher-ups, and the communities face the direct impacts'— Leslie Dysart, CEO of the Community Association of South Indian Lake (O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation)
"Does that say something about the whole picture here?"
Kobliski and Dysart are both members of the Wa Ni Ska Tan Alliance of Hydro-Impacted Communities, which hosted the conference. (In Cree, "Wa Ni Ska Tan" means "Rise Up" or "Wake Up".) The group aims to overcome what University of Manitoba professor Stéphane McLachlan described as a "divide and conquer" approach taken by Manitoba Hydro and the provincial government to hydro development in Manitoba.
"We recognized together that collectively, if we spoke the same truth, that we would have a greater impact," he said.
McLachlan said the alliance’s first few years focused on building connections and trust between communities impacted by hydroelectric development in Manitoba, and then reached out to build global partnerships.
"In a sense, the conference represents that first step in doing that... We recognized that it doesn’t matter if you’re from a community in Panama, or Brazil, or Spain, or Canada or the U.S., that likely it’s going to be similar kinds of impacts," said McLachlan, who sits on Wa Ni Ska Tan’s steering committee with Kobliski and Dysart.
Conference speaker Elisa Estronioli came to Winnipeg from her home in Altamira, Brazil on behalf of a group called The Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB). Speaking in Portuguese, she said the issues faced by Indigenous and rural Brazilians impacted by hydroelectric development aren’t much different than those faced by some First Nations in Manitoba — insufficient consultations, disrupted livelihoods and eventually unemployment and poverty. Woman are disproportionately affected by hydro projects, she said.
"If we compare what life is now to what used to be in the past, we can see that actually hydroelectric dams have not brought about the promises they told us," said Estronioli through an interpreter.
"The downsides of hydro development for Indigenous communities can last for generations," said Leslie Dysart about South Indian Lake, where a hydro reservoir was built in the 1970s.
"(Manitoba) Hydro and the province like to portray the flooding of South Indian Lake as something that happened in the past, and the damages are in the past," he said. "That’s totally incorrect, and misinformation. The damages are occurring today, and into the future — forever, if they operate these dams the current way they’re operating."
Dysart feels Manitoba Hydro and the provincial government are well aware of what’s happening in northern Indigenous communities impacted by hydro development — he thinks they simply don’t care.
"Our premier was quoted in the Free Press a couple days ago about meeting with the prime minister, Justin Trudeau," he said.
"And one of his main concerns was the increase in young men’s suicide in Alberta — he doesn’t express the same concern for our increasing suicides of young people, our children in northern Manitoba. That’s the message we’re getting from the leaders of this province."
The Ki Ta Ski Naw conference attracted about 250 participants, according to U of M professor McLachlan. About 100 more had to be turned away for lack of space. Conference attendees plan to march to Manitoba Hydro’s Portage Avenue headquarters this afternoon.
Solomon Israel is a full-time reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press and for two years, the lead writer for Free Press cannabis news site, The Leaf News. He continues to provide coverage of the cannabis beat while covering business in the city and province.
Updated on Sunday, November 10, 2019 at 1:16 PM CST: Adds photo