By Shirley Ducharme
Original Article featured in Winnipeg Free Press January 21, 2020
While in Winnipeg, federal cabinet members will talk about reconciliation while enjoying the spoils of our unreconciled existence. When they flick light switches or charge their phones, they will plug directly into the reality of our community, and others like it.
That makes this a good time to invite them to take four common-sense steps that would give us a better chance to regain self-reliance.
In 1967, the Manitoba Development Authority noted that per-capita annual income in our community of South Indian Lake was $3,500 to $4,000 compared with about $500 in other northern communities. This was partly because Indian agents mostly left us alone (because we had no reserve land), and partly because we had the third-largest commercial whitefish fishery in North America. As the development authority stated, we were “self-supporting.”
I recall my dad proudly coming in the house at the end of a good day of commercial fishing. And I recall, with deep sadness, later years when he no longer even went out to try. A tragic shift took place in him and in our home and community because our economic base was taken from us.
This could have been prevented. And it can be reversed, at least partly.
Our lake — the fourth-largest in Manitoba — is a 140-kilometre-long widening of the Churchill River, the second-largest river in Manitoba. In 1973, the provincial government issued an interim licence allowing Manitoba Hydro to divert three-quarters of the flow of the Churchill by raising the lake three metres and blasting a new outlet channel. The water is now diverted to the Nelson River, where Hydro’s main dams churn out the power that illuminates today’s cabinet deliberations.
The project permanently floods more than 800 square kilometres. Many hundreds of kilometres of shoreline continually collapse into murky waters. Beaches are gone. Islands disappear. Our community was forcibly moved, our homes burned so we would not return.
Our fishing industry did OK for a while, but our annual catch is now less than one-fifth of what it was. A government official once said a bigger, flooded lake would mean more fish, but whitefish numbers have plummeted. All of this was done against our wishes and without our consent. Governments presided over our destruction.
In 1979, Hydro started testing water regimes beyond the licence limits. The licence allowed Hydro to draw down water on our lake by no more than two feet in a 12-month period. Hydro wanted 4.5 feet. The province agreed. In 1986, this “deviation,” as government calls it, was set out as the augmented flow program, subject to annual approvals.
Scientific evidence indicates that the additional drawdown under the augmented flow program may well be what put our lake over the edge. It might also contribute to disturbing levels of mercury in fish in recent years.
This major deviation from the licence happens by means of a one-page form letter sent to Hydro each year by a provincial bureaucrat. With the stroke of a pen in a Winnipeg office, an assistant deputy minister who has likely never been to South Indian Lake calmly pushes us closer to the brink. We are politely notified after the fact.
The augmented flow program deviation is typical of Hydro regulation in Manitoba. The utility drastically alters the five largest rivers in the province with a patchwork of decades-old interim licences that were never finalized, or expired 50-year licences that were replaced with last-minute “short-term extension licences” that avoid due process. Neither the Churchill River Diversion, nor the largest dam (Limestone), nor the most recent one (Wuskwatim) have final licences.
Premier Brian Pallister has referred to the “gold standard” Manitoba uses in consulting Indigenous people. After raising our concerns with his minister 11 months ago, we have heard nothing from his consultation unit.
This make-it-up-as-you-go-along, rubber-stamp “regulation” means the project that devastates our lake operates as though nothing has changed or been learned since the 1970s. It’s business as usual, which for us is the grim, steady decline of our economy and our spirits.
Why should Trudeau’s cabinet care? While production of electricity is, constitutionally, provincial jurisdiction, “inland fisheries” and “Indians and lands reserved for the Indians” are federal responsibilities. In the absence of meaningful provincial oversight, we ask Ottawa to:
1) pressure Manitoba to cancel the augmented flow program and return to the interim licence for an in-depth study period;
2) bring the province, Hydro and our community together for a concerted process — presided over by an eminent Canadian who can ensure meaningful progress — to establish what free, prior and informed consent can look like in the case of ongoing projects and renewal of expired Hydro licences (the diversion licence ends in 2026);
3) monitor the amount of land lost to shoreline erosion annually; and
4) study sturgeon stocks and designate them as “at risk” if warranted.
Nixing the augmented flow program would be a significant first step toward reduced erosion, reduced mercury and improved fishing. Meaningful involvement in decisions about our lake would be a next step. As Manitoba enters a period of excess energy supply, cancelling the flow program might not even cost much.
By what authority, exactly, can Manitoba Hydro destroy a fish population and undercut our economic base? In part, decades of federal negligence allowed this. Ottawa could have stepped in at any point. It is time for them to get off the sidelines. Change is possible.
Shirley Ducharme is Chief of South Indian Lake (O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation).