Healing the Wounds of Dams
Premier Greg Selinger stood on a stage in a school gym in Cross Lake, Manitoba in front of a crowd of 225 people who came to hear something they had never heard before. “I wish now on behalf of the Government of Manitoba,” Selinger said, “to express my sincere apology to Aboriginal peoples affected by hydro development.”
“We recognize,” he continued, “that reconciliation is an ongoing process and are committed to work with communities toward building respectful relationships.” The audience, from a community that has been battered by hydro dams for decades, clapped politely for Selinger. That was in January of this year.
In 1975, a committee representing their community and four others made the following
statement in a presentation to an interchurch inquiry into hydro.
Our submission can have no other theme than to object to the project in the strongest terms possible. . . . Neither Cree culture, Cree values, nor the native communities affected are against change, but we cannot and do not condone a project which changes 50,000 miles of life-creating and life-supporting shorelines and which floods some 415,000 acres of ancestral lands. . . .
The simple fact is that if the communities affected would have a choice in the matter, they would not trade this choice for any amount of compensation; they would veto the project.
The project went ahead.
Now, Manitoba’s five largest rivers and six of its 12 largest lakes have been fundamentally altered in order to produce electricity. These changes create wounds on the lands and in the hearts of the people for whom those water bodies are home. In 2001, the report of a second interchurch inquiry into the hydropower system said the following.
For Manitoba Hydro, the governments, and consumers the [hydro system] is a success, but in northern Manitoba it constitutes an ongoing ecological, social, and moral catastrophe. These imbalances must be redressed.
There is a growing sense among non-Aboriginal Canadians that we must walk a path of redress and reconciliation with Indigenous people. There is a sense that the relationship is askew and we would all benefit from a more fair and honourable arrangement. But what exactly does reconciliation look like?
The Interchurch Council on Hydropower works at one very specific piece of reconciliation—bringing healing to the relationship between hydro customers at the southern end of the transmission line and affected Indigenous peoples at the northern end.
Rooted in a 40-year legacy of interchurch involvement in hydro issues, we advocate for fair treatment of people and lands affected by Manitoba’s hydropower system. We build relationships in the north, we monitor the activities of our utility and government, we participate in public discourse by means of media, regulatory hearings, development of school curriculum, public presentations and a photo-video exhibit that has been shown in a dozen venues.
Our message is that hydropower is not clean. Many people still carry the stain of ongoing hydro damage in their hearts. And the damage to tens of thousands of kilometres of shoreline is evident for anyone to see. Much reconciliation is required. And it is entirely possible.
Hydro could review how it manages water regimes so as to reduce environmental impact, as has been done effectively in other provinces.
The $125 million in water rental fees that Hydro pays to the province each year could be redirected to affected peoples for community development initiatives. Hydro could pursue aggressive geothermal and Power Smart programs for affected peoples to ease the debilitatingly high power bills many of them face. Hydro could charge affected peoples a flat heating rate based on the average cost of heating a Winnipeg home with electricity. Northern Hydro workers receive such an accommodation, but affected peoples pay hundreds in monthly hydro bills during winter.
Hydro speaks of a “new era” of development in the north. That era is rooted in concepts of consent and benefit sharing. But it applies primarily to First Nations near new dams sites. These First Nation make up only about one-third of affected peoples (and even among the one-third, a significant number are bitterly dissatisfied with the new era). Government has recently acknowledged that reconciliation must extend to all affected peoples.
Some progress has been made in this regard but a great deal of healing and redress is still needed before southern consumers can be satisfied that when they flick the light switch, people at the other end of the power line have been dealt with fairly.
The forced imposition of a massive hydropower project on the north was an injustice of unthinkable proportion, consequence and duration. The task of making that as right as is possible is the difficult, exciting task of living into God’s love. Hydropower is an admittedly complex reality in Manitoba, but the call of the Gospel is simple: love your neighbour. The people who live the consequences of producing the power in our toasters and laptops are our neighbours.
We at the Interchurch Council on Hydropower feel honoured that mainline denominations have entrusted us with the task of working at reconciliation with hydro-affected peoples. We humbly invite your interest and support.
Will Braun is a journalist and the Project Coordinator at the Interchurch Council on Hydropower. To receive semi-regular information about their work, email him at [email protected].