For decades, northern Manitoba’s Indigenous communities have suffered greatly from the malpractices of Manitoba Hydro.
Beginning in the early 1960s, Manitoba Hydro constructed dams to supply power throughout the province. Initially, the Crown corporation made promises to the affected Indigenous communities to uphold a degree of respect for the people and the surrounding land. Hydro has failed to honour the original agreements many times over.
The impact of their actions is staggering.
The impact: environment, culture and economy
“Well, there’s a whole slew of damages,” Leslie W. Dysart, the CEO of Community Association of South Indian Lake. (CASIL), says over the phone.
The damages stemmed from Hydro’s Churchill River Diversion (CRD) program, which began operating in 1976. The program allowed Hydro to raise water levels of Southern Indian Lake to divert water from the Churchill River into the Nelson River. Despite restrictions from the CRD interim licence issued in 1973, Hydro managed to acquire permission to keep operating CRD with less constraints through the Augmented Flow Program (AFP).
“There’s severe erosion due to the large amount of water fluctuations on our lake. You actually see trees that are falling into the water on an annual basis,” Dysart says.
Having grown up in South Indian Lake, Dysart witnessed firsthand the environmental decay of his community.
Specifically, he notes the community was once home to the largest whitefish fishery in North America. Due to Manitoba Hydro’s carelessness within the last two decades, the fish population collapsed, and the South Indian Lake economy followed.
This, however, is only one example of the losses elicited by Manitoba Hydro’s projects.
Dr. Ramona Neckoway, associate professor at University College of the North and director for the Centre for Aboriginal Languages & Culture, has researched other instances where Manitoba Hydro’s negligence yielded devastating results on the environment of affected communities.
Neckoway notes how hazardous it’s become to swim in or drink the water.
“They rerouted entire river systems, so they’ve excavated large parts of land to force water through,” she says.
“In 2021, we shouldn’t be concerned about turning on the tap to drink the water or be concerned about our children swimming in the lake. These are all fears I have,” Neckoway says.
Shoreline erosion and unnavigable waters are just some of the environmental problems Hydro-impacted communities are able to identify.
Dysart says other environmental issues, such as how the climate crisis relates to the dams, have not been studied at length. Yet Manitoba Hydro forges ahead with projects like its newest undertaking – the Keeyask Generating Station – without any concern for the damage done, or any real oversight by the provincial government.
“Manitoba Hydro is very much aware and has been informed through the decades,” Dysart says. He explains how the provincial government contributes to the problem.
“They are the regulators of Manitoba Hydro. It’s a Crown corporation. They issue the licences for these mega projects that Manitoba Hydro undertakes. Their approval processes are so lax, and there’s little oversight,” Dysart says.
The effect of Hydro’s lack of regulation isn’t confined solely to impacted communities.
“There’s a ripple effect throughout not just the community, but the province,” Dysart says.
“Last time I checked, they (Manitoba Hydro) were close to $24 billion into debt. All Manitobans have to be aware. They’re the ones who’re gonna pay off this debt.”
In addition to the economic and environmental turmoil, there is social and cultural damage.
Writer and filmmaker Sonya Ballantyne is especially in tune to the cultural traumas that have arisen from Manitoba Hydro’s operations.
In her captivating documentary Nosisim, Ballantyne tells the story of her grandmother and the turmoil she endured after the construction of a Manitoba Hydro dam near her home.
“My grandma told me about it when I was young,” she says, “that she was from a place that didn’t have any lights.”
Ballantyne grew up near Grand Rapids, Man. on the Misipawistik Cree Nation reserve. During childhood, she spent most of her time in Misipawistik and Chemawawin, where her grandmother was from.
According to Ballantyne, Chemawawin was significantly impacted by the dam in Grand Rapids, because it was the only community that was displaced.
“I remember researching it,” Ballantyne says. “People there were told that if they moved to the new place, they would get electricity. They would get access to the main road. They would have new houses and all this other stuff.”
Manitoba Hydro has never followed through on these promises. Without receiving any sort of payment in return, the loss of the original Chemawawin is all the more bleak.
“I remember people telling us about how the floodwater meant that the cemeteries were flooded there, and that you had to be careful when you go near there, because trees that were flooded would sometimes shoot up from the ground, because the roots would be destroyed,” Ballantyne says.
“I just remember how haunted that place seemed to be.”
Prior to Manitoba Hydro’s intervention, many of the northern Indigenous communities were self-sufficient and thriving.
Neckoway, who also grew up in a Hydro-impacted community, holds stories of her family from a time before the dam.
“My parents, my grandparents, they lived on the land,” she says. “They moved between camps and communities, and they were mobile, and they were active, and now we’re kind of stuck in the communities, and we’re settled into these boundaries that have been created by colonial sectors. It’s had great impact and consequences on a whole bunch of levels.”
Without swift and effective intervention, these wounds will only deepen. However, there are people currently mobilizing for change.
Wa Ni Ska Tan
Sadie-Phoenix Lavoie is the community co-ordinator for Wa Ni Ska Tan: An Alliance of Hydro-Impacted Communities.
Wa Ni Ska Tan is a group of dedicated activists and researchers who aid Hydro-impacted communities in northern Manitoba and Canada.
As the community co-ordinator, Lavoie does campaign work, event organizing and public engagement. Their job, at its core, is to send a message to those who are uninformed in southern Manitoba and inspire them into action.
Currently, Wa Ni Ska Tan is working with groups like the Manitoba Energy Justice Collision (MEJC) that have a campaign around putting in place a Manitoba Hydro shadow board. The board’s function would be to monitor Manitoba Hydro’s activities.
In addition to the shadow board and many other initiatives that operate on local, national and international levels, Wa Ni Ska Tan, alongside many others, has a particular issue on its radar.
“One major thing that we have been focusing on over the years is the Churchill River Diversion (CRD),” Lavoie says. “They’re in a struggle with the provincial government to address the licencing for the Augmented Flow Program so they can raise water levels outside of their licence that they have with the First Nations.”
“This is a constant thing, where Hydro basically asks the provincial government to sign off every year to permit them to go outside of their licence agreement, but they don’t consult properly,” Lavoie says.
Dysart notes that South Indian Lake is among the communities that have yet to be consulted.
“It’s hugely devastating to the environment, to the people, to the wildlife, to the fish. The regulators – Manitoba – want everybody to ignore that and just say ‘well, Hydro wants it, (so) they should get it,’” he says.
“It’s race-based decisions for race-based benefits, and we’re on the downside of that,” Dysart says.
After a project is built, the conservation and climate minister reviews the terms and conditions relating to the interim licence and can issue the final license if satisfied, which must be renewed after 50 years. Ultimately, the decision of whether or not projects such as the Churchill River Diversion continue is up to the current minister, Sarah Guillemard.
Do the right thing and help
Although the efforts of groups like Wa Ni Ska Tan are commendable, and the resilience of the impacted communities is remarkable, Manitobans – especially those in the south – have a moral obligation to help.
“There’s a responsibility for us to address the injustices that happened within Hydro and to prioritize the safety and health and well-being of Indigenous communities in our province when we’re addressing the energy economy here in Manitoba,” Lavoie says.
“And they have responsibility to apply pressure to the provincial government, to have more affordable energy but also (to respect) Indigenous rights.”
The aim is not to stop using the dams altogether, but to operate them responsibly so Indigenous communities aren’t sacrificed for unnecessary quantities of power.
If Manitoba Hydro is granted the licence, South Indian Lake’s ecosystem will be subjected to further damage, flooding and devastation.
“Imagine small moose, every small being just being flooded and swimming in circles until they die and drown. We’ve had reports ... of eggs of ducks and geese just floating downstream when this dumping of water occurs,” Dysart says.
“You can still generate power without destroying us.”
There are easy options to help in a significant way from home.
To start, MEJC has a letter-writing campaign on their website at mbenergyjustice.org. Personal letters are preferable, but the site offers a template that lets people input their information and click “send” in seconds.
Even simpler, there’s a change.org petition seeking 25,000 signatures. Signing it would go a long way in sending a critical message to the provincial government.
The most meaningful way to help, however, is to actively learn about the issues surrounding Hydro-impacted communities. The topic is daunting and dense but must be understood from an Indigenous perspective for real, sustainable change to be achieved.
There are many Indigenous people who are vocal about this topic. Find them, and listen.
Published in Volume 75, Number 17 of The Uniter (February 3, 2021)