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This article was published 10/6/2019 (350 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Bruce Ballantyne doesn't understand why he has to ask Manitoba Hydro's permission to be with his ancestors in the ceremonial and sacred sites near the Grand Rapids generating station.
Ballantyne was one of about 60 protesters who marched Monday morning in Winnipeg — while others marched in Grand Rapids — to protest the impending automated overnight supervision of the hydroelectric facility, which looms 40 metres above the town at Misipawistik Cree Nation.
Manitoba Hydro, which had operated a 24-hour supervised schedule, announced last month the partial automation beginning Thursday will mean there will be no staff at the facility for more than 12 hours each day (from 5:20 p.m. to 7 a.m.). It also means restricted access to the ceremonial and sacred sites located nearby.
"I loved working for them, but with what's happening now, I feel betrayed. I can't even go on the site where I used to work; I can't even go to visit my friends without calling first here in Winnipeg," said Ballantyne, a former Hydro employee who recently retired after 27 years.
The generating station is on the Saskatchewan River, about 430 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg. It has been in operation since 1968.
In addition to restricted access to those sacred Indigenous sites, the protesters and community leaders have voiced concerns about the safety of residents, with no human at the hydroelectric facility to take immediate action in case of an operational failure or another emergency.
"This is a huge step backwards when it comes to the relationship between Manitoba Hydro and the Grand Rapids community," said Sadie-Phoenix Lavoie, the community liaison with Waniskatan, an alliance of about a dozen Hydro-impacted Manitoba communities. "Hydro's agenda to automate the dam for over 12 hours (each day) leaves the community in a huge security risk.
"A lot of community members are still traumatized by the 1992 accident and they're saying, 'What if this were to happen again?'"
In March 1992, a turbine cap failure resulted in the first four floors of the station flooding within seconds. A potential disaster was averted when an employee was able to cut off the floodwater.
Hydro spokesman Scott Powell said the security concerns are "unfounded fears," because the automation systems are state-of-the-art technology and staff members are located less than one kilometre away.
"It's critical to realize that the systems of today, these automated systems, are going respond just as quickly to a situation like that as an operator would. In fact, they many respond more quickly because they'll notice something changing right away. They're designed to shut down in a fail-safe mode," Powell said, noting automation of hydroelectric facilities is already in place in other facilities across North America.
"In the case of Grand Rapids, it's important to know that Manitoba Hydro staff... even though they're not in the control room, they're still located at site, even in off-hours. They live in the on-site staff house that's less than a kilometre away from the actual station," Powell said.
The Waniskatan group is circulating public petitions to convince Manitoba Hydro, a Crown corporation, to reverse the decision and reinstate 24-hour human supervision.
Last month, Grand Rapids Mayor Robert Buck and Misipawistik Chief Harold Turner had demanded Hydro suspend all work on automating the facility until community fears are addressed.
Powell said Hydro has "a process in place" to allow Indigenous people access to the sacred sites.
In an email Monday afternoon, he said: "We have acknowledged the community's concerns and are continuing to discuss the issue with leadership, so we can develop a mutually acceptable solution without compromising either the security of the station or the safety of community members visiting those sites."
Chief Dennis White Bird, representing the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs at the Winnipeg protest, said an access road leading to the ceremonial sites and a burial ground is being closed off by gates as part of the automation process.
"There'll be no access unless we have Manitoba Hydro's consent," said White Bird. "For us, that's a major issue.
"Our ceremonial land is very important to us during our daily activities, and burial sites, we need to have continued access so that we can show our respects to our people who have passed on."
Updated on Monday, June 10, 2019 at 5:05 PM CDT: Adds statement from Hydro.