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How Green Energy Has Hurt First Nations in the North

We travelled Canada's North to find out how decades of Manitoba Hydro projects have impacted Indigenous communities in that province.

by James Wilt
Oct 19 2016, 6:15pm

Photos by James Wilt

In Manitoba's North, Provincial Highway 280 is spoken of in near-mythical terms. As in "make sure you're off the PR 280 before it starts raining otherwise you're fucked."

Massive trenches and potholes litter the gravel road. Many are invisible until you're bottoming out in them. The shoulders blend almost directly into the banks, advantageous for spotting black bears and bald eagles but a terrifying reality if caught in reduced visibility.

There are really only two reasons to travel on the PR 280.


Graphic by Jane Kim

Either you're driving from or to Tataskweyak or Fox Lake Cree Nation, where a combined 2,500 or so people live. Or you're trucking supplies for Manitoba Hydro, the Crown Corp that very proudly produces over 96 per cent of the province's electricity via the "clean, renewable power" of massive hydroelectric dams on the Nelson River.

And the relationship between Manitoba Hydro and some Indigenous residents is, well, a little tense.

In May, the highway was blocked by protesters on account of the awful road conditions, alleged to be largely caused by heavy truck traffic and neglect from the province. Manitoba Hydro vehicles were refused access.

The conditions of the PR 280 are just the beginning of the problems.

Northern Cree and Métis hunters, trappers, harvesters and fishers speak openly and angrily about how hydro projects and transmission lines have resulted in ruined fisheries, illegal clearcuts, contaminated drinking water, damaged sacred sites and burial grounds, destroyed traplines, the flooding of entire communities, and erosion of the lands that remain.


Fox Lake

That's resulted in the decimation of what's known as "The Bush." It's a phrase often used in the North that not only refers to geography but to a deeply egalitarian and respectful way of life, one intricately linked to food generated by practices such as hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering.

The Bush is under serious, likely irreversible threat. All in the name of "green energy."

Which is why Peter Kulchyski, long-time native studies professor at the University of Manitoba and Public Enemy No. 1 of Manitoba Hydro, took a dozen of us—artists, students, writers and activists—to visit six Cree communities in Northern Manitoba in early June.

Because sure, moving towards "green energy" is ostensibly a good thing.

About a half-billion dollars worth of the stuff is sold off to the United States every year, helping to cut annual emissions by an estimated six million tonnes (although demand for power has plummeted with rise of fracking).

The Pembina Institute and Leap Manifesto posse have also pointed to the province's electricity system as an example of what a low-carbon, electric car-centric future looks like.

But it's more complicated than that. These emissions reductions are coming at the expense of a distinct way of life, one practiced for thousands of years by Indigenous people across the continent, including the Innu and Inuit in Labrador who are currently protesting the flooding of ancestral territories for the notorious Muskrat Falls project and the Dunne-za in British Columbia opposing the Site C dam.

At the moment, the South doesn't seem to care much about the latter.

"My trapline is shot"

The PR 280 petered out in Gillam, a tiny town about a dozen hours north of Winnipeg that serves as home to many Fox Lake Cree people and full-time hydro employees who work on one of the massive dams nearby.

Our hosts were on the frontlines of that protest back in May. They fed us almost immediately, as per Northern tradition: they'd started cooking the meal—beef and noodle soup, bannock and jam, coffee—a few hours before.

After lunch, we set out on a driving tour of the area led by Noah Massan, a trapper in his mid 60s who once worked as a heavy equipment operator to build the dams. I landed a spot in the backseat of his truck. It was covered in white hair, courtesy of a dog that follows Massan around. Someone found a small claw on the truck's floor and passed it to him.

"It's a fox toenail," he said. "Want it?"

Much of Gillam has been knocked down in recent years: a restaurant, laundromat, shopping mall and hardware store were all replaced by the likes of office buildings and apartment blocks. Massan said that prices at the local swimming pool have been jacked up, meaning locals can't swim at the pool anymore.

We drove past band housing on unpaved road.

The plywood foundation was busting off many of the units. Massan told us that some of the houses sported mould and shoddy insulation.

Only two blocks away was "where Hydro lives."


Fox Lake

It could have easily passed as a Winnipeg suburb, minus the omnipresent, sparkling ATVs. Massan pointed to an area he called Candyland, nicknamed because of the assorted colours of the houses. Hydro houses sport two energy metres on their exterior, with the utility company covering half the bill for its employees.

A blond, curly haired construction foreman stared suspiciously at us as we edged by. Some band members worked the site. It's tough for young people to find work, Massan said, with the kids of Hydro families hired to cut the grass over locals.

The road was quickly engulfed by thick forest. We neared Massan's trapline. But after a few hundred feet, we shot out into a massive clear cut interspersed with transmission towers and trucks. A new highway was under construction.

"My trapline is shot," said Massan, waving dismissively at the devastation.

Just two years ago, the forest was untouched. Lynx were finally starting to come back after two decades of being MIA. Most animals have been scared off by the renewed development, which spews dust into the air. The trees appeared covered in a mist.

Security has also been beefed up: fences and gates erected, guarded by Hydro workers. Massan was recently stopped at a newly gated dyke and accused of being a tourist.

Driving through the area felt like trespassing. As if we were on occupied lands, not the other way around. A little while back, Massan found a toy animal in one of his traps, a prank likely pulled by Manitoba Hydro workers.

The highway that destroyed Massan's trapline is being built to service a new $6.5 billion dam called Keeyask, located on the Nelson between Split Lake and Gillam. The area already houses Manitoba's third largest, Long Spruce. But the province has deemed it necessary to add another 695 MW behemoth to its hydro arsenal.

Nobody really seems to know why it's being built other than sunk costs.

Manitoba Hydro's debt continues to balloon, contributing to Standard & Poor's recent decision to downgrade the province's credit rating yet again. Wuskwatim, a 220 MW dam that exceeded construction by costs by double, has been losing money since it opened in 2012. The province's Public Utility Board expects the utility company to lose $1 billion between 2019 and 2025, coming at an expected doubling in electricity rates for Manitobans.

And a recent review commissioned by the new provincial government found there's "no choice but to move forward" on Keeyask and the new transmission line, Bipole III, despite concerns over serious delays and "mounting and unprecedented levels of debt" due to a "imprudent, some would say, reckless, capital spending program."

Manitoba Hydro responded to VICE's questions about the Keeyask project, but didn't respond with comment on the larger issues around the impact of hydro projects on Indigenous communities.

Yet the new Progressive Conservative government, led by Premier Brian Pallister, has flip-flopped on Bipole III and mentioned the potential need for yet another transmission line: "We hope the economy grows, we hope our province grows, we hope our hydro needs grow."

Since getting elected in April, the PC government has frequently criticized the previous NDP administration about decisions made over Manitoba Hydro.

But it's all solely from an economic perspective: Keeyask and Bipole III clearly threaten the stability of both the utility and province's financial stability. The PCs have even floated the idea of ramming Bipole III through the east side of Lake Winnipeg, which would plow through through many First Nations and a boreal forest currently under consideration for designation as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Predictably, the PCs haven't criticized hydro projects on the grounds of Indigenous nationhood and access to lands and waters. That would likely undermine much more than just the financial stability of the utility.


Grand Rapids

"A lot of us are still suffering"

Dams serve as proxy for a deeply Canadian narrative: a country born by trade and transport on the rivers now literally derives its power from those same rivers.

But as with most bullshit colonial myths, it's one that comes at the massive expense of the original users of the lands and waters.

In Manitoba, the obsession seriously kicked off in 1960, when the Grand Rapids Generating Station (a four-turbine dam with a small-ish generating capacity of 480 megawatts) started being built.

It was 1968, to be exact, when Manitoba Hydro completed the eight-year process of building the dam, which resulted in forcibly relocating the community of Chemawawin, flooding over 1,000 sq. km of territory, unearthing ancient graves. The process made so much noise from dynamiting that it constantly spewed dust into the air and triggered PTSD in war veterans.

"My grandmother was in her late 70s when they were building this dam," recalled commercial fisherman Gerald McKay, who led us to a grassy overlook that used to peer down on the Saskatchewan River's rapids—long since dried up.

"I can remember she said: 'These white men are crazy.' I don't think she believed it. When they did shut it off, it was kind of a shock of a lot of people, especially the older people. I don't think a lot of them ever recovered from that."

The river used to be thick with pickerel, suckers and jackfish, all staples of the local diet. They all disappeared as the waters stagnated.

McKay's father lost his ability to fish, as well as trap at the nearby Summerberry Marsh. The influx of white workers had brought alcohol into the community: McKay remembered his father sleeping under the table as they were getting ready for school one morning (the kids were forced to learn English at school, many losing their Cree in the process).

Nearly overnight, a way of life that had sustained people for thousands of years was eradicated, forcing them into wage labour and poverty.

And in a cruel twist of irony, the community has historically paid some of the highest electrical bills in the province, long considered "rural" customers by Manitoba Hydro. McKay said he's constantly on cut-off notice.

Hydro workers living in the North receive free heating in their homes, living in a swanky suburban-looking community nearby (but clearly distinct from Indigenous residents.) If they could just get a free heating deal like that, McKay said, things would be ever-so-slightly better in Grand Rapids.

Fishers and trappers who lost their livelihoods never received compensation. In 1991, the First Nation negotiated a tiny package of $5.5 million. Between 1982 and 2006, it's estimated the dam generated over $1 billion for Manitoba Hydro.

"A lot of us are still suffering from what happened here over 50 years ago," said McKay, who added he's struggled with depression in recent years. "It's a lifelong thing. It's gone. Everything's over. All of our relatives are buried here. And everyone's leaving Grand Rapids because there's no work here."

And the construction of the Grand Rapids dam was only the beginning of the province's hydro addiction. In 1966, the provincial and federal government determined that the mighty Nelson River would be Manitoba Hydro's golden ticket: it features a steeper slope towards Hudson's Bay than the Churchill River, meaning more potential power.


Control structure

But in order to build the desired megaprojects, a few wild engineering experiments would have to be pulled off to increase the amount of water flowing down the Nelson.

The first was called the Lake Winnipeg Regulation, in which Manitoba Hydro turned the huge freshwater lake into a reservoir of sorts by blowing open two wide channels (increasing outflow from the northern part of the lake by half) and erecting a control structure to regulate the flow into the Nelson.

This had huge impacts on Norway House Cree Nation, the biggest First Nations community in the province by on-reserve population (5,395 people) and historic hub of the North during the fur trade. An elder and councillor told us of polluted water, contaminated soil and rapidly eroding shorelines.

Manitoba Hydro has claimed the latter is a natural process. But the fishers we rode with from Norway House to Two Mile Channel and Lake Winnipeg differed, pointing to the rate at which trees collapse into the waters (which cause a boating hazard) as evidence that using Lake Winnipeg as a reservoir is accelerating the process.

The fishers maintained that the province and Hydro haven't been listening.


Norway House

"Someone has disrupted and ruined and destroyed this plate"

The federal government still calls it Cross Lake First Nation. But since the mid-1990s, its people officially refer to their home as Pimicikamak and its government as Okimawin.

Located some 800 kilometres north of Winnipeg, the community combines four councils to govern: executive, youth, elders and women. The latter two councils have veto power over any major decision. This form of government—an expression of an ancient form of Cree democracy—came to life in the wake of broken promises by Manitoba Hydro.

In 1977, following three years of intense pressure from a coalition of Cree communities, Manitoba Hydro, the province, and the federal government signed the Northern Flood Agreement (NFA). Most notably, it promised to work towards "the eradication of mass poverty and mass unemployment."

The NFA, commonly understood to be a modern treaty, went completely unfulfilled. By the mid-1980s, Manitoba Hydro started its attempts to buy-out its obligations to communities with $30 million settlements.

Four of the five communities that made up the Northern Flood Committee finally signed "implementation agreements" in the 1990s, which included clauses that "releases and forever discharges" governments and the public utility from NFA obligations.

Only one community held out: Pimicikamak. That militancy hasn't faded.

In October 2014, hundreds of people from Pimicikamak occupied a nearby Manitoba Hydro control structure called Jenpeg, protesting the lack of benefits and ongoing ecological damages. They stayed for six weeks, refusing to leave or take down their massive national flag until the premier visited (he did, accompanied with a half-assed apology).

I didn't know what to expect when we arrived.

The staunchly independent community had declared a state of emergency in March following a string of suicides, foreshadowing other crises in Nunavik and Attawapiskat. The Pimicikamak national flag flew next to its Canadian counterpart by the council building.

Darrell Settee, decked in a camo hat, glasses and jacket, led us down to the shoreline.

"God built this lake with food and nutrients," Settee said. "It was like a plate that was set before you to eat. But somehow, someone has disrupted and ruined and destroyed this plate."

Ducks now completely bypass the lake. The whitefish are gone. Hunters have to work harder to find a moose: the animals are shyer than they used to be. Traplines have shrunk, if not disappeared.

The unemployment rate is between 80 to 85 percent.

"These turbines are a wheel of fortune," Settee concluded. "Not for us though: it's a one-sided affair."

It probably seems hyperbolic to connect the dams to the ongoing suicide crisis.

Many factors can contribute to a person's decision to end their life: untreated mental illness, socioeconomic stressors, trauma, addictions. It's impossible to prove direct causation for any one suicide.

But a 1998 study conducted by two University of British Columbia psychologists found a notable link between the youth suicide rate in First Nations and "cultural continuity markers," especially "self government" and "land claims."

A decade later, the same researchers concluded: "First Nations communities that succeed in taking steps to preserve their heritage culture, and that work to control their own destinies, are dramatically more successful in insulating their youth against the risks of suicide."

In 1997, the community concluded Manitoba Hydro's activities "reversed the state of nature on Cross Lake, ruined the beauty of the community, and destroyed the livelihood of the Nation."

Make of that what you will.

Yet the conflict isn't always between Hydro and the Indigenous people who use the lands and waters. Often, it's within the communities themselves.

Robert Spence, a long-time commercial fisherman from Split Lake, tells us between bites of KFC after a long day on the lake that his community signed the Joint Keeyask Development Agreement (JKDA) with Manitoba Hydro and three other Cree nations in 2009 because of renewed promises of jobs and prosperity.

Reasonable desires for a community with an unemployment rate of over 80 percent.

But Spence, who is on frontlines of almost every protest on the PR 280, was devastated that Split Lake members chose to "sign the river away" via the JKDA, opting to join the system that has crippled the livelihoods of hunters and fishers and trappers.

And that chief and council "partners up with a corporation to destroy what they shouldn't be fucking with in the first place." And how the community had been fractured by bickering.

"People don't go out on the land as much as they used to," he said. "Only the people who use the land and water and go out on the land and water all the time see the changes. They see the negative effects. They see the constant upheaval and destruction. Daily, daily, daily."

Every story he told came back to the waters. And his love for them. And how they're doomed.


South Indian Lake

"This lake is dead, the community is dead"

It seems crude to try rank communities by Most Fucked Over By Manitoba Hydro. But South Indian Lake unquestionably takes the gold medal.

In 1976, the community was flooded 10 feet without consent. Hundreds of residents were paid to burn down their houses and relocate.

The prosperous whitefish fishery—then the second largest in North America, exporting one million pounds a year—was quickly wiped out, with the fish population dropping by 90 per cent. In 2012, they produced less than 100,000 pounds of all fish combined.

In the 1980s, scientists discovered high levels of mercury contamination in the lake associated with the flooding. Before the flooding, three people were on social assistance: two widows, and a single mother. Average incomes were five times that of other Indigenous people living in the North.

Now, 85 percent of the community relies on social assistance.

We stopped in Leaf Rapids, a town that was largely abandoned after the nearby copper-zinc mine closed in 2002. The shopping mall seemed the central hub for what remained of the community: kids pushed the automatic door opener and rode the swinging door, while adults milled about. There didn't seem to be much to do in the town.

The only access point to South Indian Lake was via a tiny cable ferry. We headed straight for the community's rink after making the 10-minute crossing; two long tables were set up on the concrete floor, on which a feast of sandwiches, watermelon, and bannock was served.

There was a tart jam that paired brilliantly with the bannock. Hilda Dysart told me it was made from mossberry, which used to grow everywhere but the flooding now required gatherers to search as far as Leaf Rapids for.

As we ate, we were given a primer to the catastrophe by Les Dysart, Hilda's son.

People had been living in the region for thousands of years: there were over 3,000 identified sites where people resided and lived off the land.

They weren't registered as a First Nation, meaning that residents lived in a technically informal and undefined community without a designated chief and council.

This allowed the Manitoba government to designate them as "squatters" and disregard any rights they had to land or compensation. It's also why despite playing a key role in organizing the Northern Flood Committee, South Indian Lake wasn't a member of the Northern Flood Agreement.

(In addition, there's a strong argument to be made that the only reason South Indian Lake, previously a sub-community of Nelson House, became a First Nation was because it overwhelmingly disapproved of the Wuskwatim project and would have likely killed it come time to vote.)

"The community was forced to relocate," Dysard said. "They weren't given a choice. It was take it or leave it, but if you leave it you might go to jail. The whole era of 60s Scoop and residential schools: that was still very real.

"They offered homes across here but only if you burned down your other home. It was that kind of situation."

In 1976, the Churchill River Diversion—which was the second wild engineering experiment to increase flow rates in the Nelson—raised the level of South Indian Lake by 10 feet.

A few years later, Manitoba Hydro started applying for (and receiving) augmented flow licenses, allowing it to increase the range of annual withdrawals from the lake.

Dysart dubbed the granting of an augmented flow license a "huge environmental destructive activity every year," noting that the impacts of the CRD would be far less damaging if the utility just stuck to the original agreement.

But more water equals more electricity, meaning more money for the company.

Manitoba Hydro is in the process of attempting to secure a permanent license for the augmented flow. Dysart said if it receives that, "this lake is dead, the community is dead."

In 1992, the community received $18 million in compensation. In January 2015, then-premier Greg Selinger issued a formal apology for all Indigenous communities impacted by Manitoba Hydro activities. However, Dysart says that since 2013, Manitoba Hydro has ceased communications with South Indian Lake.

After the Lunch and Learn, a few of us headed out on a small boat to check out South Indian Lake. Steve Ducharme, president of the South Indian Lake Commercial Fishermen's Association and former mayor of the community, drove us to the middle of the lake.

Buoys bounced like lost clown noses in the water, marking islands that had recently sunk and now served as boating hazards. We passed a few treetops. Running over one of those could have seriously fucked up our engine.

Ducharme estimated that hundreds of islands in the lake have disappeared in recent years. Some featured mossberry bushes, other sacred sites. Just two weeks prior, he'd taken three of his grandkids to see a Arctic Tern nesting spot. That island was gone.

Ducharme was 20 when he watched his house burn down. His family had been paid $1,000 to perform the task; those who didn't comply were removed by the RCMP. He took us to an island, converted to house a summer camp set-up of sorts.

You could still see the outlines of old homes. He pointed some ten feet out into the lake from where we're standing.

That's where the house that his wife grew up in used to be.

I asked him what he thought would be left by the time his grandkids grew up: "I don't know," he said, with a grimace and shake of the head. Ducharme's generation will be the last that remembers what the lake once looked like, before the flooding.


Grand Rapids

"Canada is at war with The Bush"

As I waited to board my flight home from Winnipeg, I pulled up a spoken word that Kulchyski had performed in 2014 titled The Bush Manifesto. He'd recited it in the truck at some point as we drove.

"Canada is at war with The Bush," he said in it. "Canada will have nothing to do with The Bush except to destroy it as quickly as it possibly can."

I started tearing up again, my backpack sitting on a garbage can next to me as Zone 2 lined up for boarding. It was a form of exhausted grief completely devoid of real-world connection: I was a tourist in the North and now returned to a home in a city where I could forget about it all. Talk about settler privilege.

The hunters, the fishers, the trappers, the gatherers—the people who had long practiced a way of life that defied western conceptions of place and meaning and property—are running out of time.

Their ancestral practices are increasingly threatened as access to lands and waters diminishes. And it's not a matter of compensation, although that would help. Hydro's offers to fly hunters and fishers to remote locations to continue their practices also miss the point, although they serve as a stopgap.

A way of life, one rooted in families and clans and bioregions, has almost been nearly extinguished in the name of "green" energy.

And it's only a foreshadowing of what's to come in British Columbia with Site C and Labrador with Muskrat Falls. I don't want to throw my arms up and say nothing can be done: Indigenous people are living expressions of resistance and resurgence.

But no one I spoke to on my journey had much optimism about their future.

We rose out of Winnipeg. The last thing I spotted before lifting above the clouds was the city's massive IKEA, its downtown and the river winding through it.

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