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Feature Story
Who Owns This River?
Page 6

The First Nations

After nine weeks of heated public hearings, Manitoba's Clean Environment Commission last fall recommended the licensing of Wuskwatim. "This is the first domino; if it goes, the next all go with it," says Don Sullivan. "Wuskwatim would be the only dam so far subject to environmental review. The prior ones never went through any provincial, federal, or public review process and have no environmental licenses. If they get an easy ride with this one, they'll keep on going."

But Hydro could face other opposition: Five Cree nations, including South Indian Lake and the Pimicikamak Cree of Cross Lake, which were slammed by the previous dams, have the right of advise and consent on any large hydro project that would have an impact on their territory. "You can drive a Mack truck through our environmental laws," Sullivan asserts. "They're full of weaseling-out language. But since the Canadian Constitution of 1982, aboriginal rights are inviolate."

Hydro knows this, of course, and has been assiduously courting these ravaged communities to get them on board. In 1975, prior to the new constitution, the utility, along with the federal and provincial governments, was pressured to sign a compensation package called the Northern Flood Agreement with the Cree nations. But by 1992 most of this treaty's terms had not been fulfilled. Four of the nations -- including the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (NCN) and Tataskweyak Cree Nation -- agreed to a cash settlement, which is referred to in official documents as an implementation agreement. Others refer to it as an "extinguishment agreement," because it potentially frees the company of everything it was obligated to do by the 1975 pact, thus weakening the nations' leverage to resist Hydro's new projects. But one nation, the Pimicikamak, did not sign an implementation agreement and therefore remains in a stronger position to oppose the construction of Wuskwatim.

The Pimicikamak are not alone in their opposition to Wuskwatim. The dam would lie in the territory of NCN, whose 5,000 members are bitterly divided over a statement of understanding the leadership signed with Hydro. Elvis Thomas, a pro-development and pro-dam member of the band council (as some First Nations call their deliberative body), explains the terms he negotiated for his community: To gain one-third ownership of the dam, according to Thomas, NCN would invest $59.3 million in Hydro; $39.8 million of that would come in the form of a 25-year loan from the company. NCN would have to raise the other $19.5 million. Once the dam is built, the First Nation could expect to earn $21 million to $46 million per year in energy revenues.

"Hydro in the 60s and 70s made the decision to tap into the existing river system with no discussion or involvement of the native people," Thomas says. "The federal and provincial governments gave their blessings and proceeded as if we didn't exist, and caused a lot of damage to the Nelson River system, which we live in. People have been scarred and impacted in ways you wouldn't believe. As the leaders of today, we have to contend with that. But that was done, and these dams have been in existence for 34 years. I can't live in the past and complain about it forever and a day, because I have real live human beings that I represent who are pressing on me their needs in today's life -- health care and other services that modern society takes for granted."

In order for Hydro to proceed, the Wuskwatim deal has to be approved by a referendum of the whole community. Its critics claim that the leadership has delayed the vote until this summer because it is afraid Wuskwatim won't get enough votes. One critic is Carol Kobliski, spokeswoman of the opposition group Nelson House Justice Seekers -- and Thomas's sister. The dam hasn't even been built, but already it is dividing families.

"Elvis is on the other side of the fence," Kobliski says. "It's very hard, but I have the support of the community, and we're getting help from all over. We don't want Wuskwatim because it's going to destroy our land and water even more. Money isn't going to give back what's gone or make our people happy."

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz at NRDC emphasizes that since 1982, when the new constitution was ratified, aboriginal rights, as affirmed by Canada's Supreme Court, have been the best means to achieve conservation goals and to foil Hydro's plans, so she and the Canadian groups are supporting these First Nations' rights. Still, it's too early to predict the outcome. "Manitoba Hydro is a state unto itself," Sullivan tells me. "It's even more powerful than the provincial government, and it's always gotten a get-out-of-jail card for its transgressions. I wouldn't count it out just yet."

Photo of Manitoba Hydro high-voltage transmission linesAmong the collateral effects of the dams are the three or more transmission lines -- perhaps running in two separate corridors -- that Hydro wants to run straight through the proposed World Heritage site. Each corridor would cut a swath 150 yards wide, for hundreds of miles through undisturbed wilderness. The lines would cut across caribou migration routes and curtail their seasonal, food-driven movements (caribou rarely venture out of the woods so they don't become easier prey for wolves and other predators). The swaths could then open the way to roads, which eventually open the door to large-scale exploitation of minerals and timber. "That's what always happens," Sullivan says dolefully. The visual impact alone would be horrific -- a procession of monstrous metal bipoles marching across the landscape, over hill and dale, shattering the wilderness. But Premier Doer of Manitoba seems to be coming around. In December he said that a World Heritage site would be great for the province, although he stopped short of saying that the transmission lines should be kept out. Was he speaking with a politician's forked tongue, or does he think he can have it both ways? Stay tuned.

Europe's Black Triangle Blooms
Europe's Black Triangle Blooms
Alexander's Marvelous Machine

Click to enlarge

Where the Action Is

These groups are involved in the campaign for Manitoba's proposed World Heritage site:

Manitoba Wildlands
Boreal Forest Network

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Photo: Manitoba Hydro
Map: Small World Maps

OnEarth. Spring 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council