Original Article on the Winnipeg Free Press:
A blockade of three Manitoba Hydro sites by Fox Lake Cree Nation ended on the weekend following talks between the Crown corporation and the First Nation.
The Crown corporation announced an agreement had been reached following meetings with Hydro CEO Kelvin Shepherd, who arrived Friday morning at the band’s request.
In a phone interview Sunday, Chief Walter Spence said Shepherd attended a meeting at the blockade site to end the action.
“It was a positive, positive conclusion. We renewed our commitment. By that I mean Manitoba Hydro and Fox Lake, to work together more closely and strengthen our relationship,” Spence said.
The agreement signed to end the blockade will include regular quarterly meetings between Hydro executives and the Cree leaders.
“We had a lot to discuss and they are going to work hard at not allowing this to occur again,” Spence said.
Shepherd met with Spence, elders and community members to discuss Hydro’s “commitment to mutual respect of the land,” according to a news release.
“Manitoba Hydro shares the concern of Fox Lake Cree Nation over the disrespectful damage to a sacred site,” said Shepherd in the release. “After the meeting with the chief, elders and community members over the last two days, we have worked with them to address their concerns and find ways to move forward, heal and find solutions.
“We are very pleased to have reached an agreement and to have the blockade down.”
The blockade was first erected Thursday at the junction of the reserve and Highway 290 after Spence said sacred ceremonial land near the site was desecrated. Access to Hydro’s Limestone Generation station, Keewatinohk Access Gate and Henday Converter Station was blocked.
Spence said the action was taken after members found ceremonial land adorned with prayer flags and tobacco ties had been destroyed. Several nearby trees were uprooted near the remote First Nations community, about 1,000 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.
The flags and ties had been placed by members of the Cree Nation in November as part of a groundbreaking ceremony to honour the land before construction began by Manitoba Hydro on the reserve; Manitoba Hydro participated in the ceremony.
Spence said Friday the initial meeting between band members and the CEO was “heated and tense”. But, the chief added, “the tension diffused and we had more dialogue and more openness.”
Shepherd also met with band elders, who gave Shepherd an oral history of the effect of hydro construction projects on the community. “That made most of the members say, ‘Yes, he’s genuine,'” Spence said.
Meanwhile, workers told the Free Press via emails prior to the end of the blockade that contrary to official statements, there were more than 350 workers stuck on the job and food had been rationed at the hydro stations.
“The workers in the Henday and Limestone stations do not stay in camps and they live in Gillam with their family and loved ones and have been stuck in the stations since Friday morning at the earliest. Unless they were the night shift then they have been in there since Thursday night,” one worker said by email prior to the blockade coming down.
Earlier reports stated the blockade hadn’t impacted ongoing work at the three sites as the workers live in camps on the sites, but had blocked access in and out of the sites for Hydro’s 280 workers.
Another said workers were frustrated because the utility wasn’t updating the stations with information on how talks were going.
“There are also around 350 contract workers being held here on the (Keewatinohk) work site. The camp has started to ration food. So far workers that are scheduled to go home Monday are going to be held back and are not being given any information of when we can leave,” the worker said.
“It seems like we are being held against our will. Some workers want to go home but Fox Lake is not letting people leave! Workers are having to submit requests to the band for right of passage and that has to go through a approval process,” the worker said.
Neither worker wanted their names disclosed.
The chief did not comment on the workers’ emails, but he stressed the blockade was a “peaceful social action.”