The Hydro-dammed will not suffer in silence

Wa Ni Ska Tan’s conference aims for international solidarity

Gabrielle Funk

After the recent provincial and federal election cycles, one might think debates about a wellknown and environmentally destructive energy source would become pervasive, but Manitoba Hydro continues to go largely unquestioned and unexamined by communities not impacted by their projects, especially in southern Manitoba.

However, a conference on hydro energy justice with international participants is coming to Winnipeg. Hosted by Wa Ni Ska Tan, an alliance of communities affected by hydro and the allies of those communities, this year’s annual Ka Ta Ski Naw - Our Land conference will focus on elevating the voices of hydro-impacted communities, building relationships between hydro-impacted communities on an international scale and developing a plan of action for these communities and this international alliance.

Ramona Neckoway is excited to see these international voices come together at Our Land and to be able to focus on those impacted by hydro projects.

Neckoway is an assistant professor of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba (U of M) and program chair at the University College of the North in the Aboriginal and Northern Studies Department. She is Cree, from Nelson House, a hydro-impacted community, and is an executive and part of the steering committee for Wa Ni Ska Tan.

“I think by and large, a lot of people don’t know the extent of what is involved in producing this energy source, and I think a lot of people still think this is clean, green energy. Some of the work that we’re doing is calling some of those assumptions into question, because from our vantage point, looking at what the impacts are on the land and the water, it doesn’t look so green when you’re standing on the shoreline,” she says.

Neckoway says hydro projects often cause intense shoreline erosion; debris-filled and discoloured water; artificial lakes and reservoirs; the displacement of large amounts of water causing flooding and affecting infrastructure, crops and wildlife; and cultural heritage loss for those whose traditional lands are in the sites of hydro companies. She says that the deals Manitoba Hydro makes with communities are often unequitable and cause community tension. The Executive Summary of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls also cite hydroelectric projects in northern Manitoba as key sites of racism and sexual violence.

“I don’t think there’s an awareness of what producing this energy source entails in Manitoba.”

Neckoway says that in the ’70s, hydro was a much more contentious energy source in Manitoba.

“I don’t think a lot of people are in tune or aware of what’s involved in producing hydro power, and I’m not talking about in the technical sense, I’m talking about the environmental footprint,” she says.

“I keep coming back to the issue of the environment and the land, and for us, being Cree, what this has meant in terms of our Indigeneity and the consequences for our own hydro-affected communities, who don’t always know the history and the extent of the impacts,” she says.

Stef McLachlan, an environment and geography professor at the U of M who is also involved with Wa Ni Ska Tan, says that while he thinks “some people are becoming more aware, companies like Manitoba Hydro have so many resources that in a sense, the spin, the greenwashing is just all around people.”

He also says that the damaging effects of hydro projects become confusing to the public when both Manitoba’s government and Manitoba Hydro are acknowledging that there are harmful effects and still not doing anything about it.

“Whenever you talk to Hydro, they talk about how things are different now. Part of this work is challenging that and saying ‘No, if anything, things are worse, because the impacts are cumulative,” McLachlan says.

McLachlan says that the narrative of Hydro partnering with communities is also part of the problem, because those partnerships are limited, the community doesn’t actually have a choice, and it isn’t equitable. Part of the work of Wa Ni Ska Tan is “trying to get Manitobans who benefit from this really cheap energy to think critically.”

“Part of that is recognizing that it’s not just hydro,” McLachlan says. “It’s residential schools, it’s violence against Indigenous women and girls, it’s hundreds of years of oppression and ignoring people, it’s other types of resource extraction, it’s food insecurity, and all of this sort of aggregates the situation.”

He says that in southern Manitoba, settlers often take these things issue by issue, but in truth, these are all combined, and reconciliation can’t happen without Hydro and its beneficiaries owning up to what is currently happening.

A hydro company marketing itself as green energy while wreaking havoc for local communities is not unique to Manitoba, McLachlan says. It is a global problem.

“These are multinational companies that talk to one another and learn from one another and often collaborate with one another on these huge projects, and it isn’t really surprising that you see this spin and these impacts repeating across the globe,” he says. “We need an appropriately international response to this.”

This is what the conference is all about – supporting one another and thinking actively about solutions. Neckoway and McLachlan are hopeful that Ka Ta Ski Naw will be productive in empowering hydro-impacted communities and creating a plan of action.

“It’s not gonna be one of these boring old conferences with PowerPoints,” McLachlan says. “We tried to create a space where it’s a much more culturally diverse and community-driven climate” to make the conference comfortable for non-academics. There will be a mix of keynotes and breakout sessions for participants to talk about their experiences and strategize.

“Importantly, not only are we interested in having people share and learn from one another, but on the last day, we’re going to be doing brainstorming about what shape this international alliance might take and what might be its goals and steps for moving forward,” he says.

Neckoway says this kind of organizing has the potential to be far-reaching.

“In this context, we’re looking at hydro power,” she says, “but I think many parallels can be made to other industries and the ways governments and industries are engaging with other Indigenous communities.

“I think we need to think beyond Hydro. The deals that they’ve brought to communities aren’t that great. There’s an economic variable with regard to hydro issues (and the cost of their impacts),” she says.

“From one person’s community perspective, I think this kind of research and the work that we’re doing is much-needed in terms of thinking about this particular energy source, thinking about its history, thinking about some of what it means right now and what it could mean looking into the future in terms of how we address the environmental impacts ... and cultural impacts associated with this power,” she says.

Published in Volume 74, Number 9 of The Uniter (November 7, 2019)

Related Reads