OTTAWA — The Trudeau government has delayed approval of Manitoba Hydro’s transmission line to Minnesota due to the premier’s spat with the Manitoba Metis Federation, the Free Press has learned.
The decision will likely add costs to a $453-million project, and highlights a clash over how much Indigenous consultation major projects require.
The federal cabinet had a Thursday deadline on whether to approve the Manitoba-Minnesota power line. It instead signed an order-in-council to extend its cutoff by a month, in the hopes the province can rectify its feud with the MMF.
"Following requests from Indigenous communities, and to ensure we meet our duty to consult, we have extended the timeline for a decision until June 14," wrote Alexandre Deslongchamps, a spokesman for Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi.
"Following requests from Indigenous communities, and to ensure we meet our duty to consult, we have extended the timeline for a decision until June 14." - Natural Resources Minister spokesman
Last year, the Manitoba government reneged on a tentative deal Manitoba Hydro negotiated that would have given the federation $67.5-million in exchange for not contesting the project during its assessment process.
The National Energy Board (NEB) approved the project last November, but had used the federation’s testimony from before Premier Brian Pallister refused to approve the deal last March.
MMF President David Chartrand has argued that means the project is proceeding without proper consent — a view that Ottawa fears might have enough credibility in a court challenge.
"It has become clear through our consultations that agreements offered by Manitoba Hydro to Indigenous communities, and then discontinued by the Manitoba government, were critical for Indigenous support for this project. It is also clear that this decision has affected Indigenous groups’ support for the project," wrote Deslongchamps.
Last month, the Pallister government announced it had approved an environmental licence for the transmission line, leaving federal approval as the last major step before construction. Hydro has crafted an "accelerated construction schedule" in the hope of bringing the line into service by June 2020.
Chartrand had urged Ottawa not to give it the green-light, claiming Pallister "backstabbed" the Métis. The premier has said it was inappropriate for the federation to suspend the rights of future generations in exchange for "persuasion money," an argument Chartrand rejects.
On Wednesday, Chartrand reiterated threats to sue both Manitoba and Ottawa if it approved the project, which he said he’d personally raised with Sohi.
"If they sign off, I will take the Liberal government to court, no doubt," he said. "They would put themselves in a very precarious position legally."
“If they sign off, I will take the Liberal government to court, no doubt. They would put themselves in a very precarious position legally." -David Chartrand
This is the second time Trudeau’s cabinet has opted to delay its decision on the project. In a month, it can issue another delay, approve the project, reject it, or refer it back to the NEB.
Government sources said the Liberals believe the project doesn’t need another NEB review. Rather, Ottawa has to show it exercised its "duty to consult" by trying hard enough to get Indigenous buy-in, even if the project proceeds without MMF support.
Pallister has previously warned that any delay will add to construction costs; his office projected a year of delays would cost taxpayers $200 million.
Not all of the construction is slated for the summer, with Hydro needing to build some parts in the winter atop frozen bogs.
Federal sources suggested the Manitoba government has provided some but not all documentation Ottawa requested for its review. The Liberals did not inform the Pallister government of its decision, which will likely be published next week.
"I’ll have more on that to say tomorrow," the premier told reporters Thursday morning.
Pallister noted the project is supposed to help the continent use more green energy, and that Minnesota Power is in the final stages of constructing its side of the line.
Neither Sohi nor Pallister were available for afternoon interviews. The premier's spokesman wrote in an email that the government feels it’s achieved all requirements for Indigenous consultation and plans to abide by the NEB’s conditions for the project.
"If the federal government is serious about fighting climate change, while supporting necessary economic development, it needs to move this project forward now," wrote David von Meyenfeldt.
The transmission line follows the traditional homeland of the Red River Colony. A 2016 Supreme Court case ruled that Métis can file land claims. If the federation launches the first of such claims, it would likely delay the transmission project for years.
“If the federal government is serious about fighting climate change, while supporting necessary economic development, it needs to move this project forward now." -Premier Brian Pallister's spokesman
The project is part of a rift between Ottawa and Manitoba over the extent to which major projects require Indigenous input.
Last November, Pallister chided the federal government for allowing its assessment agency to consult widely over the Interlake flood-channel outlets. The project aims to link Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin — but communities along the Nelson River, as far as 500 kilometres downstream, are part of the review.
The 500-kilovolt transmission line has been in the works for five years, and is expected to displace carbon emissions while bringing in millions to provincial coffers.
— With files from Martin Cash and Jessica Botelho-Urbanski
Updated on Friday, May 17, 2019 at 5:32 PM CDT: corrects name of Minnesota Power