OTTAWA — Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has staked out the Interlake flood outlets as a $1-billion legacy project, yet his government seems to be its own worst enemy in getting it completed.
A week ago, Pallister told reporters he’d continue pushing Ottawa to get the Lake Manitoba-Lake St. Martin outlet channels approved, saying Manitoba has done ample consultation. He accused the federal government of "onerous" consultation requirements.
"Despite the fact we’ve had approaching 600 meetings with Indigenous groups over the last three years, the federal regulations and regulatory authority have come back and said that we need more consultations," the premier said Nov. 7.
Yet documents filed as recently as last week show communities Ottawa compelled Manitoba to consult in May 2018 still haven’t heard from the province.
"The engagement by Manitoba Infrastructure with Poplar River First Nation has consisted of three letters and one phone call in the last three years," the reserve’s project manager, Jared Whelan, wrote on Sept. 20.
Cross Lake Chief David Monias wrote that as of Oct. 21, Manitoba Infrastructure has "not held a single meeting... and has completely failed to seek out, understand and address our concerns."
Those two communities were part of a May 2018 list a federal agency (now called the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada) provided Manitoba Infrastructure, shortly after it filed notice of its intent to build the channel outlets.
The regulator listed 39 Indigenous groups potentially affected by the project that needed to be consulted.
Manitoba Infrastructure could not say Thursday which of those groups it has met, a detail similarly missing in the 2,300-page report it submitted last August.
In August 2018, the regulator broadened its list of 39 Indigenous groups, adding six more, including four reserves along the Nelson River, 500 kilometres downstream.
The premier and his allies have decried that move as Ottawa "changing the yardsticks" to "endlessly" drag out consultations.
But the agency itself says "multiple conference calls and phone conversations with Indigenous groups" brought across concerns along the Nelson River on "the project’s potential effects to water quality and quantity, fish and fish habitat, cumulative effects and potential impacts to Aboriginal and treaty rights."
In particular, the communities are worried about the Nelson River rising and wreaking havoc on homes and fish stocks.
Ottawa explicitly asked Manitoba Infrastructure to look into these concerns and, in June, upgraded those communities from ones that need to be consulted to those most likely to be affected by the project.
That month, the regulator warned in a separate letter the province’s impact statement wouldn’t suffice if those groups aren’t consulted.
Yet, nine weeks later, Manitoba Infrastructure reported it had intentionally left out those communities from its massive filing "because it is assumed that Manitoba Hydro will continue to manage water levels and flows in the Nelson River."
In its own submission, Hydro said it crunched numbers the department provided, but "performed no studies or analysis on the impacts of the (project) on the environment generally."
By Oct. 22, Ottawa wrote that the province needs to go back to the drawing board, because it ignored the directives issued 17 months earlier.
Pallister has also falsely claimed on numerous occasions the project falls under Bill C-69, a controversial infrastructure-regulation law that beefed up scrutiny on expanding pipelines, dams and ports. He repeated this claim last week in a Globe and Mail opinion piece.
Yet, the channel outlets fall under the 2012 regime — as noted numerous times in Manitoba Infrastructure’s own submission to the regulator.
As for the premier’s claim of having almost 600 meetings, a provincial spokesman said this actually meant "633 phone or email discussions, 125 in-person meetings and 193 letters."
Corey Shefman, a lawyer commissioned by multiple Indigenous groups to assist with consultations on a range of projects, said Manitoba tends to be a laggard on meeting its constitutional duties on Indigenous issues.
He said Pallister’s claim of having the "gold standard" for consultation isn’t realistic, and he’s responsible for any costly delays in the process.
"Any delay in this project at this point falls entirely at the province’s feet," Shefman said. "The federal regulator warned the Manitoba government repeatedly."