The New Hydro Agreements: Manitoba Hydro How to Build a Legacy of Hatred

By Kulchyski, Peter | Canadian Dimension, May-June 2004 | Go to article overview

The New Hydro Agreements: Manitoba Hydro How to Build a Legacy of Hatred


Kulchyski, Peter, Canadian Dimension


Northern Manitoba, with some of the oldest "contact" history on the North American continent, owing to its central position in the English fur trade, has over the last century become a Canadian backwater, rarely gaining attention even in alternative news sources. Although a crucial struggle took place in the seventies over hydroelectric development, the entire Aboriginal community of South Indian Lake relocated as a result of planned flooding, the conflict did not in general gain the kind of media attention generated by the James Bay Cree or the Dene of the Northwest Territories. Perhaps that is why Manitoba Hydro and the Government of Manitoba feel they can quietly get away with writing another page of colonial history on Cree territory.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Following the twists and turns of this conflict is not easy, but a bit of background is helpful. The community of Nelson House signed Treaty 5 in an adhesion in 1908. Since the treaty purported to surrender Aboriginal land ownership, the Cree of Manitoba were not in a position to negotiate a modern treaty along the model of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975. In fact, in the mid-seventies Manitoba Hydro and its government partner thought they could do what they wanted without any Aboriginal consent, and it was only the determined opposition of five communities that lead to a Northern Flood Agreement (NFA) in 1977.

The NFA madesome big promises. For example, in a Schedule attached to it the communities were promised "the eradication of mass poverty and mass unemployment. A decade later, however, the government of Manitoba and its publicly owned power utility decided the promises in the NFA were too big, and moved to negotiate what are misleadingly called "implementation agreements"--effectively cash buyouts of the promises made in the NFA. To date, only one of the five communities, Cross Lake (centre of the Pimicikamak Cree Nation), has courageously refused the buyout and continues to lobby for real implementation of the NFA.

South Indian Lake

The community affected most by the 1970s developments, South Indian Lake, did not have reserve status. It was considered by government a "sub-community" of Nelson House and still does not have separate band status, though citizens of South Indian Lake consider themselves a separate nation. It was not a separate signatory to the NFA, though, through some interesting legal chicanery, it signed an implementation agreement in the early nineties.

Among the stories that circulate in South Indian Lake: Houses for the relocated community were built in southern Manitoba. In the move up north, insulation settled in the houses' walls, leaving foot-long gaps beneath the roofs. The houses were heated electrically, and the heat poured out of these gaps. These "new" houses remain in use to this day. Small wonder some people in the community had their power cut off for failing to pay the bills charged by the company that flooded their lands and left them with inadequate housing.

Although Manitoba Hydro assured everyone that the environmental impacts of the project would be minimal, and no environmental review was conducted, in fact, the projects had devastating effects. The Churchill River was diverted so that it would flow into the Nelson and add to the latter's rate of flow. A dam was built near the south end of the Nelson, which effectively turned Lake Winnipeg into a giant water reservoir whose levels could be managed by engineers. The Nelson River, once a pristine source of life, became silty and dangerous. At the time, local people and independent engineers questioned the supposed neutral impact of the project; but their objections were swept aside.

I remember watching propaganda films in the sixties boasting that the new hydroelectric energy would have no negative environmental consequences. The hubris of Manitoba Hydro's engineers was trusted absolutely by a variety of Manitoba governments, including the NDP government of Ed Schreyer. …

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