A Change.org petition and public advertisements in Winnipeg are being employed by Northern Manitobans concerned about Manitoba Hydro getting a final licence for the Churchill River Diversion (CRD).
Constructed in the early to mid-1970s to redirect water from the Churchill River system into the Nelson River system in order to power the Crown corporation’s hydroelectric dams that provide more than 70 per cent of Manitoba’s electricity, the CRD has operated with an interim licence for 44 years and annual approvals of higher water flows than that interim licence specifies since 1986. Manitoba’s Conservation and Climate Minister Sarah Guillemard has indicated that a decision on the final licence, which would be good until 2026, is coming soon, and residents of South Indian Lake and other concerned citizens say including higher water flows could be disastrous.
“What they’re asking for basically is permission to permanently increase the flow of the river so they can create more hydroelectric power and they can export it to the United State and they don’t care what’s going to happen to the land, to the people,” says Angela Levasseur, who started the Change.org/HydroImpacted petition that had collected nearly 52,000 signatures as of May 3. Levasseur is originally from South Indian Lake, where she worked for her uncle’s fishery as a teenager, though she now lives in Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation. “I call it environmental racism and that’s what it is. My people are seen as disposable.”
In addition to the petition, the public pressure campaign also includes bus stop ads and an electronic billboard in Winnipeg.
Les Dysart, who represents O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation (OPNPCN), which was a northern affairs community at the time the CRD was constructed, on the fishery and hydro impacts file, says the diversion itself had a massively detrimental impact on the Southern Indian Lake whitefish fishery and that it became even worse when Manitoba Hydro began the augmented flow program (AFP), under which it applies every year to the minister to exceed the water increase and drawdown levels that are outlined in the interim licence.
“We find the augmented flow is extremely destructive to our environment with the water level fluctuations impacting our shorelines, our lands, erosion, water quality,” he said. “Our lake whitefish population is in collapse.”
Manitoba Hydro wants the AFP parameters included in the final licence because the Crown corporation says they’re necessary to ensure customers’ energy needs can be met. during the winter months, when demand is highest.
“The augmented flow program is crucial to our system and has operated as an integral part of the CRD in a similar way since 1986,” said Hydro media relations officer Bruce Owen.
Dysart contends that Hydro is not living up to agreements it has with South Indian Lake to mitigate damages caused by the CRD and AFP, but Owen says the agreements have been h0noured.
To Peter Kulchyski, a professor in the Department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba who grew up in Northern Manitoba and attended high school in Cranberry Portage, consultation by the Crown with OPNPCN before issuing the final licence is not only required by the 1982 constitution but also by the spirit or reconciliation.
“I’m quite concerned that it looks like the provincial government is not interested in having hearings, not taking on board the fact that since 1973 [when CRD construction began], aboriginal and treaty rights have been constitutionally enshrined and a lot of court cases have said that these issues are very important,” he says. “They seem to just want to sneak in a new licence that might include the augmented flow program as part of the licence without any public input whatsoever. Will there at least be a chance for the public to speak out and for us to maybe put some other things in the licence that might constrain Hydro’s activities? If it’s a rubber stamp then we’re just talking colonialism as usual and very poor community consultation and just doing what they want to do.”
Dysart says the provincial government is in a conflict of interest position because they are the regulator of Manitoba Hydro but also benefit from its operations, receiving millions of dollars from the Crown corporation for water rentals.
“Manitoba is benefiting greatly from them while we’re suffering the negative impact with really no mitigation, very poor mitigations program,” says Dysart, noting that the lake used to produce more than a million pounds of whitefish annually and that the harvest is negatively affected by increased flows through the Missi Falls control structure. “Every year they do major flushes through Missi Falls our commercial catch has dropped by half and they’ve plummeted since 1997 to less than a tenth of what they were [that year.]”
Levasseur says that she’d like to see the issuing of the final licence prevented.
“I think that as long as the people who are for the environment are united and work collectively that we can put a stop to this,” she said. “The massive support being shown for our petition gives me hope and leads me to believe that people are obviously more supportive of Indigenous rights [than they have been in the past.].”
A spokesperson for Guillemard did not answer specific questions asked by the Nickel Belt News regarding the final licence for the CRD, but did provide a statement.
“Crown consultations on a possible final licence for Manitoba Hydro began in 2009,” he said. “The minister is currently reviewing the consultation summary materials and is expected to make a decision in the coming weeks.”