In May 2021, a series of billboards and transit shelter ads in Winnipeg address Sarah Guillemard, MLA for Fort Richmond, stating: “MLA Sarah Guillemard, Don’t let Hydro destroy South Indian Lake.” The locations are: Pembina Hwy and Killarney (ES, ES, photo free for use) and a digital billboard across from Polo Park .
Almost 50,000 have signed a Change.org petition (change.org/HydroImpacted) calling on Sarah Guillemard, Minister of Conservation and Climate, to reject Manitoba Hydro’s request for a final license for the Churchill River Diversion project.
“This license would grant Manitoba Hydro the power to permanently destroy land, water, and ultimately people’s lives.” says Angela Levasseur, who started the petition. Levasseur is from O-Pipon-Na-Piwin (South Indian Lake) and has experienced the devastating impact that Manitoba Hydro’s Augmented Flow Program (AFP) has on the people and environment.
“Their responses are stunningly dismissive and vague,” wrote Levasseur in an update to petition signers after receiving a second letter from Minister Guillemard’s office. “We are not going away, and I think Sarah Guillemard and Premier Brian Pallister are starting to realize this.”
“Our people were lied to. Before the AFP, South Indian Lake was a self-sufficient and vibrant community of 600 First Nations people who thrived. The basis for the community’s self-sufficiency and healthy lifestyle was our traditional economy of harvesting various species of fish, mainly a yield of over a million pounds of Lake Whitefish,” says Levasseur.
This all changed in 1973 when Manitoba Hydro was granted an interim license under the The Water Power Act. Manitoba Hydro did not respect the terms of the AFP license. They dammed the Churchill River, and resultant elevated water levels flushed contaminants including mercury, from the banks into the lake, polluting the water and the fish. The fish now have mercury levels so high that they are of concern to local residents, who rely on this as a food source.
Jim Senka, who worked for Manitoba Hydro and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans prior to the flooding says, “the effect of the flooding on this once thriving First Nations Community is heartbreaking and a metaphor for what the colonists have done to First Nations people and their land.” He notes that flooding damaged traditional traplines and hunting, the water in the lake is no longer drinkable, and the destruction of the culture was completely ignored by Manitoba Hydro in the pre-flooding consideration.
Manitoba Hydro did not respect the terms of the 1973 CRD Interim License and shortly after started testing the flooding and fluctuations. Manitoba Hydro has been operating under annual approvals of the Augmented Flow Program outside of its interim licence, and has applied for a permanent licence that the community and almost 50,000 supporters are trying to stop.
The AFP has never undergone any environmental review, causes great harm to the environment, and will continue further decimating the lake’s whitefish population and the economics of the community. Community members say meaningful consultation never took place and the people impacted will not stand for this.
The Wa Ni Ska Tan Alliance of Hydro-Impacted Communities is made up of over 25 First Nation and Métis communities with representation from leadership and/or community members, 23 researchers from eleven universities, and over 20 environmental and social justice NGOs and legal firms. On November 30, 2020, Wa Ni Ska Tan Alliance of Hydro-Impacted Communities, said in a letter to Minister Guillemard:
“As an Alliance we have been documenting the many adverse impacts of hydro development in Manitoba, which are environmental, economic, cultural, and social in nature. The construction of mega dams throughout Northern Manitoba and the accompanying ‘man camps’ have resulted and are still resulting in rape and sexual assault, racism, substance abuse, displacement and relocation of entire communities, the loss of traditional livelihoods, suicide, environmental degradation caused by contruction, hydro corridors, fluctuating water levels, and flooding. The same environmental degradation leads to boating and snowmobile accidents, injuries, and deaths. This is far from an exhaustive list, but these impacts give you an idea of what happens when a crown corporation is allowed to operate with limited accountability and little to no meaningful consultation with the communities they are impacting.”
“Manitoba has a decided conflict of interest due to their direct involvement with Hydro. They should be recused from the decision making process and the public should be involved” says Richard ‘Dik’ Coats, an engineer, who was concerned about the harms caused by the original flooding and is now speaking out to try to stop the approval of the final license. He says in a January 21, 2021 letter to Minister Guillemard: “The original flooding of South Indian Lake was my first exposure to ‘engineering gone wrong’, and I was greatly disappointed with the lack of care and judgement shown by the profession. It is because of the initial devastation of South Indian Lake that I do not wear the traditional engineer’s ‘iron ring’.”
“Response by both the provincial government and the federal government, with the exception of the Green Party, have been sorely lacking” says Coats. On January 28, 2021 Green Party of Manitoba Leader James Beddome also sent a letter to Minister Guillemard. In a February 5 op-ed, Say no to augmented flow, in the Thompson Citizen, Beddome said “South Indian Lake was once the third-largest whitefish fishery in North America, but declined by 90 per cent following construction of the CRD. Now, without public review and under the cover of a pandemic, with time running out under The Water Power Act regulations, it looks like the Pallister government is going to quickly issue the final licence for the Churchill River Diversion over the objections of Indigenous communities and peoples, so Manitoba Hydro can apply for yet another 50-year licence.”
For the latest signature count and more information on the petition please see change.org/HydroImpacted