Hydro dam has mixed benefits for community

Residents torn on the project’s implications

Former Split Lake resident Solange Garson is worried the Keeyask dam will continue the destruction Manitoba Hydro caused in her community. Mark Reimer

Residents of a northern Manitoba community are divided on the idea of Manitoba Hydro building a dam in their area.

Solange Garson, a former Split Lake resident now living in Winnipeg, feels the Keeyask dam will bring more harm than good to her remote Cree community, located about 143 kilometres west of Thompson.

The Tataskweyak Cree Nation in Split Lake was greatly affected by the Churchill River diversion in 1977, making residents wary of further Hydro developments.

“Split Lake was a beautiful place with six beautiful beaches,” she said. “Now it’s gone.”

The Keeyask Generating Station is still in its planning stages. When built, it will be located in the Split Lake Resource Management Area on the lower Nelson River. It will be one of Hydro’s largest dam projects in northern Manitoba.

The people of Split Lake voted the proposal in on Feb. 6.

But Marcus Rempel, spokesperson for the Interfaith Task Force on North Hydro Development (ITF), a group of church members from across Manitoba who are concerned with the public consultations around Hydro developments, noted that voter turnout was slim, and that the vote was won by a small majority.

According to CTV Winnipeg, over 60 per cent of voters voted yes on the project.

It still needs to be voted in by three other First Nations communities: Fox Lake, York Factory and War Lake, reported the Canadian Press.  The dates for these votes have yet to be determined.

“It’s a difficult marriage,” Rempel said. “By supporting these foreign energy interests, the local issues are ignored.”

But for Larry Beardy, the Anglican priest in Split Lake, there is nothing difficult about the decision to partner with Hydro.

Beardy is a member of the Tataskweyak Cree Nation who is involved in the promotion of the Keeyask project.

“The church leaders in Tataskweyak were asked to tell the story of the partnership with Manitoba Hydro,” he said. “We’re looking at business and employment opportunities.”

Beardy said the Keeyask dam project is just another step in a long history of First Nations communities partnering with industry, which stretches from the fur trade to working on the Canada railway.

“It’s a natural process,” Beardy said. “Our people have voted in favour of the partnership. It’s one way of improving the community.”

In an effort to minimize the negative effects of the Keeyask dam, Manitoba Hydro has generated Adverse Effects Agreements (AEAs) with the affected four nations.

The AEA proposes several “offsetting programs” that try to even out any problems that Keeyask may produce in the area.

These offsetting programs include profit sharing and funding for community development. This includes compensation in the form of satellite phones, leased vehicles, and more (see box for more info). 

It also provides Tataskweyak with over $2 million a year for every year of the project after 2013, amongst millions of dollars in other payments.

Beardy said the elders of the community negotiated an environmental study to be done on the effects of the dam.

The extent and timeline of this study have not yet been developed.

Beardy is also encouraged by Manitoba Hydro’s promise to build a culture centre in Split Lake, and by their support of a Fall Access Program.

This program will help fund traditional hunting and fishing expeditions away from the Split Lake area for the area’s Cree people.

These activities were displaced from Split Lake due to environmental damage in the area from previous Hydro projects, like the Churchill River diversion.

“The erosion of the shorelines is a major concern,” Garson said. “I’ve seen deformed fish which I never used to.”

Garson also has issues with the way the money is being distributed in the community.

“We’ve not seen any financial transparencies. I’ve been bugging them for this since 2000,” she said.

Construction dates have yet to be announced.

Manitoba Hydro was not available for comment as of press time.

Published in Volume 63, Number 25 of The Uniter (March 26, 2009)

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