Why we’ve taken back Jenpeg
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/10/2014 (2850 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It’s been a week since our people effectively evicted Manitoba Hydro from the Jenpeg dam in Pimicikamak territory.
Last Thursday, about 600 of our citizens travelled to Jenpeg, 20 kilometres from our main community of Cross Lake, to deliver an eviction notice to staff in the housing complex on the dam grounds. Hydro personnel then vacated the premises. That building is now empty, undamaged, under our locks and under our flag.
A skeleton Hydro crew remains in the dam itself, 525 km north of Winnipeg, to monitor the facility. We guarantee the well-being and safe passage of those people.
On Thursday, we came to Winnipeg to gather with supporters outside the Hydro building to explain to Manitobans why we have taken back Jenpeg.
Manitoba Hydro has been a great benefit to the province as a whole. Hydro employs 6,500 people, provides inexpensive power, and has brought $5.2 billion into the province from exports of “clean” energy in the past decade.
But for us “hydro” is a bitter word and “clean hydro” is an insult. Our homeland has been ruined, the promises of fair treatment have been ignored and to add insult to injury, literally, our hydro bills are much higher than the provincial average.
Imagine if the once-pristine waters in the lake by your cottage became murky and the shoreline continually washed away. Imagine your favourite childhood camping sites eroded right off the map, your industries undercut, your favourite golf course denuded, your ancestors’ graves dug up, and your place of worship defiled. Imagine if you had to constantly fight for compensation and mitigation, while paying monthly bills to the victimizer.
Despite all the damage we suffer, our community collectively pays Hydro about $3.6 million annually in hydro bills. Every bill is a reminder of the indignity done to us. Then, after contributing to our poverty, Hydro disconnects our people when they can’t pay.
That is why we are at Jenpeg. The eviction notice we delivered was modelled after the bright red disconnection notices so familiar in our community.
Last Friday we met with Hydro and provincial officials at Jenpeg, in a meeting witnessed by hundreds of our people. We are asking for a public apology, a revenue-sharing arrangement, environmental cleanup, a say in how water levels are managed, and aggressive Power Smart programs to reduce our bills. We’re also requesting assistance to maximize the transparency and overall health of our financial systems.
We do not expect Hydro to solve all our challenges, but we believe the above measures would put us on a path of increasing social and economic independence. We reject dependence, and in order to achieve self-reliance we require access to the tremendous wealth and opportunity of our homeland.
Some of the above measures are included in the 1977 Northern Flood Agreement (NFA), an after-the-flood arrangement by which we consented to the hydropower project — though with a bulldozer to our heads — in exchange for various measures designed to ensure we would be dealt with “fairly and equitably.” We are at Jenpeg because Hydro, Manitoba and Canada are in fundamental breach of the NFA.
The Crown parties have long said the NFA is too vague, even though in 1977 they rejected an early draft that contained a very specific revenue-sharing clause. Part of what we propose now is to essentially reinsert that clause.
We are fortunate to work with a Toronto-based law firm, Olthuis Kleer Townshend, that has extensive experience across the country in aboriginal law. Their lawyers tell us Manitoba lags badly behind many other jurisdictions in Canada in terms of recognizing the need for revenue sharing and other benefits to aboriginal peoples affected by industrial projects. The new way of doing things has yet to be embraced in Manitoba. We must renew and modernize the NFA.
We didn’t ask for dams. We didn’t ask for residential schools or the Indian Act or colonization of the place the Creator put us. But those things all happened. Now we are all here to stay. Hydro is here to stay, in some form, so we have to find a way to make the project work for everyone. That is the spirit of the NFA. That is why we are at Jenpeg.
We have learned from past experience. In 1998, Pimicikamak citizens blockaded a convoy of Manitoba Hydro trucks. That action resulted in promises that brought us much hope and then much disappointment, as the commitments proved empty.
Again in 2002, we experienced promises, short-term optimism, then a return to the same old. Promises alone will not move us from Jenpeg.
We are not asking that the dams be dismantled or Hydro bankrupted. We ask only that Hydro and governments apologize, clean up after themselves and learn to share.
We ask Manitobans to understand that this is the path to reconciliation and a society that everyone can be proud of.
Our people feel frustrated. Our people feel cheated. But more than that, we feel deeply, deeply determined. That is why we will stay at Jenpeg until our relationship with Manitoba is restored in word and deed. We have more right than anyone to be at Jenpeg; it is our homeland.
That is the real reason we are there — because we always have been.
Cathy Merrick is chief of the Pimicikamak nation.