OTTAWA — The four northern First Nations blockading Manitoba Hydro from undertaking a massive shift change are demanding to meet with the utility’s CEO in person.
Three weeks after chiefs asked to speak with Hydro CEO Jay Grewal about the risk of COVID-19 at the Keeyask megaproject, the utility offered to hold a teleconference call.
But the chiefs leading blockades at both entrances say they’ll reject that offer. They want Grewal to visit them 750 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.
"We’re trying to protect Manitoba as a whole," York Factory Chief Leroy Constant told the Free Press Thursday afternoon.
"We want their president to meet with us directly. We want a nation-to-nation, leadership to leadership-style meeting to occur, just to have more transparency on their part."
On May 1, Hydro announced its plan to allow a new batch of workers to rotate in to the site. More than 500 workers volunteered to stay for two months during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Hydro convinced provincial health authorities to exempt Keeyask construction from a northern travel ban to usher in as many as 1,200 workers, about a tenth of whom would come from outside Manitoba.
Keeyask leaders discussed the idea in weekly calls with chiefs, but the bands say they learned the details and timing the same day it was announced to Keeyask workers.
On May 7, the four chiefs wrote to Grewal asking to meet over concerns the plan would introduce COVID-19 to a region with scant medical services.
Many band members work on the site and fear an outbreak similar to those seen in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Grewal wrote back, asking them to take it up with local staff and stop speaking with media about it.
The blockade started May 15, four days before the shift change was set to start.
Constant suggested Grewal could visit the blockades without contracting or spreading COVID-19, given that Hydro said its protocols allow for safe transportation.
Hydro confirmed offering the four chiefs a teleconference with Grewal "for her to hear first-hand their perspectives and concerns regarding the current Keeyask pandemic plans and the rotation of staff," and said one chief had responded, asking for an in-person meeting.
On Wednesday, RCMP formally presented a Monday court injunction, authorizing Mounties to clear any blockades within 10 days.
RCMP presented the injunction to Tataskweyak Chief Doreen Spence, who ripped it up. She said Hydro is violating its promise to be a partner with the local First Nations.
"We’re not going to back down," she said. "Is this how you treat a partner?"
The RCMP say they plan to intervene only if safety is at risk.
Asked if the blockades were justified Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instead said governments and Indigenous communities need to share the goal of keeping people safe.
"Every community needs to make... make sure they're taking decisions to protect their members, but I think there are many ways of going about it," he said.
Premier Brian Pallister said he trusted health authorities.
"We need to follow the rule of law and we need to make sure that we respect it," he told reporters.
Updated on Thursday, May 21, 2020 at 8:42 PM CDT: Fixes typo.