The Many-Headed Hydro
In the 1960s and 1970s Manitoba Hydro undertook massive hydroelectric projects in the Nelson River system, 150 miles north of the Bloodvein. The Nelson drains Lake Winnipeg, running from its northeastern corner up to the vast Hudson Bay, and is the biggest river in the province. Seventy-five percent of the flow of the Churchill, the next big river to the north of the Nelson, is diverted into the Nelson via the Rat and Burntwood Rivers, and five dams with a total output of 3,925 megawatts were put in along the Nelson itself, producing more than enough juice to power a metropolis the size of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Two channels were dredged at the beginning of the Nelson to speed up and strengthen the outflow from Lake Winnipeg, and a control structure called Jenpeg was installed 40 miles downriver to regulate the releases of water from the lake into the rest of the Nelson.
These alterations unleashed a cascade of consequences, most of them unforeseen. The flow and level of the Nelson were now artificially controlled at Jenpeg, and their natural, seasonal fluctuation patterns were reversed. There were, and still are, sudden releases in the middle of the winter, when the demand for electric heat in Winnipeg (where 60 percent of the province's population lives) is at its peak. "You get different layers of ice forming, and you can't go out to your trap lines in a Ski-Doo because you'll fall through," explains Jackson Osborne, a 53-year-old member of the Pimicikamak of Cross Lake, a nation of 3,000 Cree living on the Nelson, only five miles below Jenpeg. "Animals get caught between the layers. In the spring when the ice breaks the stench is unbearable." He shows me a picture of himself standing between layers of ice, one at his knees, another over his head, and a third layer that he is standing on. Osborne produces another picture, of seagull eggs lying in a foot of water, taken right after a torrent was suddenly released from Jenpeg. He doesn't know how many other nests have been drowned, but a study at South Indian Lake, the Cree community most affected by the first round of dams, concluded that most of the aquatic birds there were wiped out. In the same vicinity, a herd of woodland caribou, swimming across the Rat River at its historic crossing, was swept to its death because the Rat's flow had been strengthened about tenfold after Manitoba Hydro diverted the Churchill into it. The accelerated flows and more frequent fluctuations have eaten away at the banks of the Nelson and the shores of South Indian Lake, toppling trees into the water and creating floating islands of mud. One evening during our June visit Osborne shows us a documentary he's made about an old burial site that was washed away by the rising water. "I filmed the skulls and bones of my ancestors in the water," he says. "When I saw our human remains desecrated like that, I got really mad. Many of our cultural and burial sites have been destroyed since the dams were put into service."
All the trees and other eroded vegetation build up and rot behind the dams, and the tannic acid they release lowers the pH of the water and leaches out the naturally occurring mercury in the bedrock. Bacteria turn the mercury into methyl mercury, explains Daniel Green, an environmental toxicologist with the University of Quebec in Montreal, who consults for Sierra Club Canada. "Methyl mercury accumulates and bioconcentrates at higher levels in the tissue and muscle of fish, delivering a lot of mercury to whoever eats them -- minks, loons, or humans," Green says. The mercury levels of the fish that are caught at Cross Lake are so high that breast-feeding mothers are warned not to eat them. "If a company had a pipe that discharged as much mercury as these dams do, it would be prosecuted for toxic pollution," Green goes on. "So there's a double standard. We're getting the mercury out of car emissions, hospitals, and thermometers, but these mega hydroelectric projects are one of the most efficient ways to contaminate the boreal ecosystem, and once the mercury is in the food chain, it takes a very long time to get rid of it. Birds carry it south, so there is also the problem of biological transport of contaminants."
"The beauty, we cannot get it back," 82-year-old Charlie Osborne, Jackson's father, tells me in June as we are getting a tour of the devastation. Charlie speaks in Cree, which someone has to translate for me; he has forgotten the English he learned 40 years ago, when he worked for the crew that was scoping out the site for the Kelsey Dam, the first that went in on the Nelson. "We had no idea what the dams were going to do until much later. The engineer from Hydro promised that the water level would not go up any more than the length of his pencil. Our land was very beautiful and healthy. Our water was clear. If you dropped an object into Cross Lake, you could see it on the bottom. Now you can't see nothing. The fish is not the same quality. It tastes different. Even today, if I don't eat fish, I don't feel well. When you eat it, your body rejuvenates. There's a lot of medicine in that fish. But now you boil the meat and it kind of dissolves, like sugar in water, and tastes mucky, like silt."
"You have to be here year round, season to season, to get the full picture," the younger Osborne says. "In the fall, when the river is lowest, the pollution gets concentrated and the kids who swim in it get scabs and rashes."
The dams, because of the mercury and the fluctuations, destroyed the flourishing whitefish industry of five native communities, including South Indian Lake and the Pimicikamak Cree of Cross Lake. "In the 70s personal income in those native fishing communities was on a par with the rest of Manitoba; today it is about one-third," says Don Sullivan. "The social infrastructure for these people to have a traditional economy -- the entire culture, which depends on a healthy ecosystem for everything -- was wiped out." As the dams destroyed the river systems, Coke and junk food, welfare checks and big TVs, took the place of fishing and hunting and trapping, and people sat at home and became obese and developed diabetes and got in trouble -- depression, drugs, spousal and child abuse. There was an epidemic of suicide at Cross Lake in the 1980s.
These acts of despair cannot be attributed directly to the dams, as much as to the process of cultural evisceration that has been going on much longer. First came the Hudson Bay fur traders, then the Anglican and Roman Catholic missionaries in the nineteenth century, competing for the natives' heathen souls. They forbade the people to conduct their ceremonies and even to use their medicinal plants, while trying to convince them that everything about their culture was bad. Then in the twentieth century, from 1920 to 1960, several generations of children were taken from their communities and forced to attend residential schools, where they were beaten if they spoke their own language. The dams were the coup de grâce, the final flail.
"The way we have treated our First Nations is our dirty little secret," Sullivan says. "These people should be the richest in Canada -- they have all the resources -- but they're the poorest, because they're not getting any of it. It's all going to you guys."