Chief Cathy Merrick believes Manitoba Hydro owes her community big-time for unfulfilled promises after the Jenpeg dam began producing energy just upstream of Cross Lake in 1979. And maybe it does, but the Pimicikamak band should beware of tying its cart too firmly to an aging generating station.

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This article was published 25/10/2014 (2768 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Editorial

Chief Cathy Merrick believes Manitoba Hydro owes her community big-time for unfulfilled promises after the Jenpeg dam began producing energy just upstream of Cross Lake in 1979. And maybe it does, but the Pimicikamak band should beware of tying its cart too firmly to an aging generating station.

Pimicikamak First Nation is immediately downstream from Jenpeg, on the Nelson River. It is a signatory to the 1977 Northern Flood Agreement, which was supposed to compensate the downstream bands whose lives and livelihoods were disrupted by the massive hydroelectric development. Ms. Merrick says Pimicikamak has seen nothing but 35 long years of disappointment flowing from the NFA.

In large part, the grievance stems from the fact the provincial government rejected a draft of a Northern Flood Agreement that included a kind of revenue sharing. A royalty clause was seen as a way to return to the bands regular revenues to support economic development.

The Schreyer government rejected revenue sharing, fearing every farmer with a hydro line traversing his field would then demand the same. Yet today, revenue sharing is a standard feature of hydroelectric development in the north.

And, today, the band is occupying the site of the Jenpeg generating station, forcing the hand of the province to make good on the NFA's promises of prosperity for the community.

A skeleton Hydro crew has been allowed to stay to ensure safe operation and maintenance at the generating station, which is the first gate through which water stored in Lake Winnipeg passes into the Nelson River, on its way north to a long chain of generating stations and dams.

Ms. Merrick says her band will not jeopardize those operations. But it is resolute in its intent, this time, to get the provincial government to agree to a royalty clause.

The flood agreement was supposed to compensate for altered water levels disrupting fishing, trapping and hunting, to clean up shorelines of debris and to employ community members. Further, it optimistically pledged to write a plan "setting forth the best-case community-development scenario and joint action program for the eradication of mass poverty and mass unemployment and the improvement of the physical, social and economic conditions and transportation." Of course, that hasn't materialized: Pimicikamak has an unemployment rate of 85 per cent.

Premier Greg Selinger is giving the band hope he will go where Schreyer refused -- describing revenue sharing difficult but a "possibility."

Pimicikamak hasn't settled on what terms for the revenue sharing would look like. Wisely, it does not want the recent deals struck with bands in advance of construction of the Wuskwatim and Keeyask dams. (Nisichiwayasihk, loaned money by Hydro to invest in Wuskwatim, has not seen the profitable returns first envisioned. In fact, falling export prices are expected to result in a decade of losses for the dam.)

Ms. Merrick wants to see her people climb out of multi-generational dependency. But revenue sharing, alone, won't deliver the NFA's lofty vows of eradicating mass poverty in the community.

Mr. Selinger needs to adopt an open, but realistic agenda when he meets with the Pimicikamak community. There are immediate points to agree upon: give the band some say over how Hydro's $5 million in annual expenditures in the community are used; help the residents better insulate their homes to cut hydro bills.

But revenue sharing must be aimed at Pimicikamak's long-term prospects, which rest on getting its people ready for jobs in a modern economy. Pimicikamak should invest its royalties in early and continuing education and skills development.