In the Far North, A Fight for a Forest Homeland
An interview with Chief John Miswagon, of Northern Manitoba's Pimicikamak Cree.
photo: Timothy J. Rudnicki Chief John Miswagon of the Pimicikamak Cree
Chief John Miswagon was born and raised in Pimicikamak homeland, in the boreal forest in what is now known as northern Manitoba. As leader of the Pimicikamak executive council since 1999, he has directed an international environmental and human rights campaign to protect his people and traditional territory from a devastating hydroelectric project dating from the 1970s, which is now threatening to expand its operations.
I understand the word Pimicikamak means "water flowing across the lake." Could you tell me about the relationship between the Pimicikamak people and the land?
The Pimicikamak have enjoyed the life-giving elements of the land for generations. We say, "Respect the life that you are given, through the water, through the animals, through the medicines, through the trees." The bottom line is, we as humans need the earth more than the earth needs us, and that's been the teaching every day of my life.
What are some of the natural spectacles that make the forest such a special place?
The forest is a place where we've always found peace. Our forest is predominantly spruce trees, with some birch and poplar as well. These trees are the lungs of our earth; they produce the fresh air that we all need. On the northern tip of our traditional territory is a migration route for caribou. We also have an abundance of moose, beaver, muskrat and lynx. And we have a lot of rabbits -- to this day we still eat a lot of rabbits. I'm the youngest of six brothers, and my brothers still spend the whole winter and every weekend in the summer out in the forest, hunting and fishing. We still crave the wild food that we've had ever since we were little.
But the forest has changed since I was young. My mother used to say, there's nothing more meaningful than peace and quiet, to hear the loons calling, but the loons don't call anymore. The day you no longer hear frogs calling, singing for us, singing for their return in the spring, she said, watch out, there's disaster coming for the water. They're the keepers of the water.
photo: Bill Van Geest Manitoba's boreal forest, near Blood Vein River (East Side of Lake Winnipeg)
What forces have threatened to disturb the close relationship between the Pimicikamak people and the boreal forest?
In the late 1950s and 1960s, Manitoba Hydro built a whole series of dams along the Nelson River, north of our community. In many ways, it was like one huge industrial complex. By 1972, they had started work on a big hydro dam just 10 kilometers from us. Before they built the dam, Manitoba Hydro did not get the consent of the people whose land and ways of life were to be affected and destroyed. They came into our community of Cross Lake and met with a handful of people, some of them elders who are still with us today. The company's representatives stood in front of a hall, held up a pencil and said the water will not fluctuate more than this. They promised just a small water fluctuation.
What happened after these dams were built?
If you read the information that Manitoba Hydro puts out, they say they impacted our land, our way of life and our territory just once, in the 1960s and early 1970s. But I want to make clear that these impacts are not in the past. They have happened every minute of every day for 30 or so years -- and they grow worse every day that the hydro project operates. We told people about the flooding, the erosion, the water fluctuations -- all of the environmental and social impacts -- but they didn't really want to believe us. Fortunately, in 2001, an independent inter-church panel issued a report calling the hydro project "an ongoing ecological, social and moral catastrophe." What has happened has severed the ties of the indigenous people to the land. When you try to travel now, one of the most devastating impacts is the hazard that the falling trees and submerged debris cause for the people still trying to exercise their way of life.
As a community, how have you responded to these changes?
We summarize our strategy in our traditional way, using the teepee as an example. We call it the "four teepee poles of survival." The first teepee pole, or first step, began in the early 1990s, when our people initiated a self-determination process by recreating our own governance and our own laws.
Secondly, we are working diligently to enforce implementation of the treaties that concern our territory. After the hydro project was built, Manitoba Hydro, the province of Manitoba and Canada entered into a treaty with us and other affected indigenous nations. This treaty, called the Northern Flood Agreement, promised to fix and mitigate to the maximum possible extent all the harm caused by the hydro project. But these parties have honored or implemented very little of the treaty.
Thirdly, based on the advice of some of our friends and associates in the United States, we have taken legal action. We've made what we call "strategic claims" against the parties for failure to honor the treaty in an effort to make them help us clean up the terrible mess that they have made.
The forth step involves carrying out what we call "campaigns of truth" in the United States, Canada and internationally to increase awareness about what is happening and to propose safer alternatives to the devastating effects of industrial hydro. We have been to Minnesota to see the wind farms. It did my heart good to see that sight because that's exactly the kind of option we do need to look at up here in Canada.
photo: Timothy J. Rudnicki The impact of hydropower flooding: debris and shoreline erosion on Lake Sipiwesk
Why are you reaching out to the United States for help?
Americans consume 35 percent to 40 percent of the power that Manitoba Hydro produces, and most of it is sold to Xcel Energy for resale to its customers in Minnesota. American utilities and companies buy it because it's so cheap, but it's cheap because the costs of all of the catastrophic environmental and social harms have not been meaningfully addressed at this end of the production. There has been virtually nothing spent on the remediation and mitigation of the conditions on this end. In this way, the power exported to the U.S. is subsidized power, subsidized at the expense of the boreal forest, of our homeland, of our lives and our culture.
If we keep buying a product that destroys the boreal forest, it will hurt everyone. I want people to be aware that environmental pollution knows no boundaries. It doesn't stay here in Canada
What is your vision for the future, for your community and for all of us?
For the past 10 years or so, it has been our national objective to heal the lands, to heal the waters, to heal what is left. In the process, we heal our nation of indigenous people and we heal the people that are in this wheel, this circle of life.
Our vision is that as long as we work to protect Mother Earth, someday people will truly listen and realize that this is the only way we are all going to survive and find peace. It is a vision of respect, peace and survival for all of us. That's the bottom line. In your culture, a lot of people save up thousands and thousands of dollars for their children to be educated and have a good future, but where are they going to live? As humans, we are in control, and we still have time. I believe in my heart that we still have time.
last revised 7/18/2004
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