The tables may be turned when provincial cabinet ministers visit First Nations on the east side of Lake Winnipeg later this week, as aboriginal leaders try to convince politicians to invest in their hydro transmission project instead of the other way around.
Craig Cook, chief of the Bloodvein First Nation, said 15 out of 16 bands on the east side of Lake Winnipeg want Manitoba Hydro's proposed BiPole III transmission line to go through their region, instead of down the west side of the province, as the NDP government has ordered.
The east side of Lake Winnipeg is home to a large swath of pristine boreal forest, which the province hopes to preserve by building a $2-billion transmission line down the province's west side, rather than the east.
However, the area is also home to chronic, crushing poverty on its remote and isolated First Nations, and some band leaders believe the transmission line could help ease that by bringing development to the area.
"Eco-tourism cannot be the only way to sustain my people on the east side," Cook said.
Investors interested in east-side line: Cook
If the government refuses to change its mind on BiPole III's location, Cook said, the newly formed East Side Power Line Development Group will build its own in the hopes of eventually leasing the line back to Manitoba Hydro, generating revenue for east-side communities for a half-century.
"We've talked to companies in Quebec. We've talked to companies in Alberta, investors in Minnesota — so the ball is getting bigger," he said. "I hope that ball will clear the line on the east side."
The Cree Regional Economic Enterprises Co., an aboriginal construction company in Quebec, confirmed that it is interested in helping the Manitoba First Nations build a power line.
The provincial government says only Manitoba Hydro, the province's Crown gas and electric utility, can own a power transmission line, and First Nations wouldn't benefit much from one in any case.
But elder aboriginal statesman Elijah Harper, who lobbies for economic development for First Nations and is involved in the development group, said he believes change will come to the area eventually.
"We have the highest suicide [rate] across Canada; we have social issues; … we lack basic living standards. It's one of the poorest areas in the world. So we want to change that," he said. "We want to participate in the economy.
"Whether it's in my lifetime or not, there'll be a line going down the east side," he said.
West side line longer, costs more
Provincial officials announced in September that BiPole III, Manitoba Hydro's third high-voltage, direct-current transmission line, will run west of Lake Manitoba, rather than cutting a shorter route through boreal forest on the east side of Lake Winnipeg.
The route down the western side of the province is longer and will cost hundreds of millions more to build, and it's estimated Manitoba Hydro will forfeit additional hundreds of millions of dollars in power lost as the electricity makes the longer journey south.
The precise route for the line will be determined after a process of environmental, design and public consultation that is expected to take several years.
About three-quarters of Manitoba Hydro's electricity production is currently supplied through two transmission lines that run from Gillam to Winnipeg through the Interlake area, between the province's two large lakes.
Once complete in 2017, BiPole III will provide a backup to those lines and carry power from the planned generating stations to southern Manitoba and export markets.