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OTTAWA — A Manitoba senator is urging her colleagues to visit Fox Lake Cree Nation in northern Manitoba to learn how major energy projects have hurt Indigenous communities, arguing that industry groups have too much sway.
Sen. Mary Jane McCallum, a Cree dentist from Manitoba’s north, is the province’s only senator who sits on the Red Chamber’s energy committee. That committee is holding hearings into Bill C-69, which overhauls the environmental assessment process for pipelines, mines and hydro developments.
"We have heard predominantly from industry, and they’re the most concerned with investment and profit," McCallum said.
"They have a loud voice already. And these smaller communities, they don’t have that equal capacity and confidence to accomplish the same."
The committee is set to hold hearings across Canada, after some testy debate about whether to visit places such as Winnipeg.
McCallum wants her colleagues to visit Fox Lake, which is 700 kilometres north of Winnipeg, to learn how hydro projects have disrupted traditional lifestyles and altered hunting patterns. She wants them to hear about the sexual exploitation of local people by workers in so-called man camps.
A provincial report last summer uncovered claims that RCMP officers had "organized gang bangs" in the late 1960s for hydro workers, who overtook the local community.
"We need to respect them. We need to treat them with dignity. They have been so traumatized; we need to go up, and see them. And let them know that we care about them as well," McCallum said, before describing a closed-door discussion with her colleagues.
"They said: ‘Oh, they could come to Winnipeg.’ And I said: ‘No, you need to do a site visit, to see the devastation of the land.’"
McCallum said she might write "a letter of concern" to all senators about the groups the committee has brought to testify. "It’s almost all pro-development. What about hearing the other side of the story? The people that have been devastated ought to be heard," she said.
McCallum said she’s asked the committee to consider splitting its Winnipeg visit: to have some senators stay in the city while a contingent flies north, because their travel budget has already been set.
It’s at the point where McCallum is ready to boycott the committee’s trips to other provinces.
She sent her fellow senators a March 23 Free Press article that details Fox Lake’s plight and activism. She met with the band’s officials on Friday.
"This is my home province, and I need to speak and understand what’s the situation here," she said. "The issue of the dams will not be over when the impact-assessment bill is done."
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McCallum admitted the hearings have forced her to have an open mind about resource extraction, after seeing issues play out in Manitoba’s north.
"I always have to think about the balance. Because of the destruction I’ve seen — of land and of people’s lives — I tend to be pro-environment," she said. "If we’re not careful, all the land within Manitoba will be devastated. And that’s what I’m afraid of."
Premiers recently pledged to try to link hydro-transmission lines across the country, to help wean off provinces — such as Saskatchewan — from coal and other fossil fuels. McCallum said that would justify expanding hydro infrastructure.
"It’s a balance," she said, arguing the bill is consequential to debate across Canada about the environment, rights and sustainability.
"It’s really a good conversation for us to have, without making it angry or making it (into) partisan politics. This is really what Canada needs to discuss right now, and Manitoba."
In the dark over energy bill
IT’S unclear what type of hydro projects the proposed energy assessment regime would regulate.
On March 21, Manitoba Enterprise Minister Blaine Pedersen made the extraordinary claim that officials working for Environment Minister Catherine McKenna told senior provincial officials to sign a non-disclosure agreement at a March 5 meeting, in order to see the list of criteria.
Pedersen told the Senate that under that agreement, the bureaucrats cannot tell him what they learned.
McKenna agreed to an interview with the Free Press on March 22. Her office later said the interview wasn’t possible. Her officials suggested Manitoba officials would explain a discrepancy in Pedersen’s testimony; his department was unfamiliar with such a claim.
Manitoba Conservative MP Ted Falk said he’s concerned about the lack of information.
“Bill C-69 is going to have broad and sweeping effects on absolutely anything when it comes to natural resources development,” said Falk, who represents Provencher.
“It’s an issue because we don’t know to what extent it will reach. We know it’s an all encompassing bill, but are their exclusions? Do provinces have special powers and exemptions? We don’t know.”