A northern Manitoba First Nation has received a long-awaited apology from the province for environmental and social harm caused by the Jenpeg hydroelectric dam over the past four decades.
Premier Greg Selinger delivered the apology after meeting on Tuesday with Pimicikamak Cree Nation Chief Cathy Merrick and other members of the community, also known as Cross Lake, located approximately 525 kilometres by air north of Winnipeg.
"Looking back at what has happened, and on the effects on aboriginal communities in Manitoba, I wish now on behalf of the Government of Manitoba to express my sincere apology to aboriginal peoples affected by hydro development," he said.
At least 200 First Nation members packed a local community centre to hear the premier's apology, the CBC's Jillian Taylor reported from Pimicikamak.
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First Nation members had occupied the Jenpeg hydroelectric dam for six weeks late last year after hundreds marched to the site on Oct. 16.
The occupation ended after an agreement was reached between the First Nation, Manitoba Hydro and the provincial government "to reset the relationship between the parties."
Manitoba Hydro uses Jenpeg — located about 20 kilometres from Pimicikamak — to control outflows from Lake Winnipeg into the Nelson River.
The hydro system floods 65 square kilometres of Pimicikamak land and causes severe damage to thousands of kilometres of shoreline, Merrick stated in a press release issued when the protest began.
After Selinger delivered his apology, Merrick told the audience that the Jenpeg dam has always been seen as a symbol of loss, but it has become a symbol of strength following last fall's occupation.
"The apology doesn't fix the past. It doesn't even fix the present," she said, adding that it can symbolize a shift from hurt to healing.
Merrick added that the apology builds a foundation for a better future — one that the First Nation, the provincial government and Manitoba Hydro must build together.
Pimicikamak signed a Northern Flood Agreement (NFA) with the province in 1977, before the dam opened, but Merrick has said the Crown corporation and the provincial government haven't fulfilled their promise to eradicate the mass poverty and mass unemployment on the First Nation.
There are 8,240 people who live on the First Nation, which has an 80 per cent unemployment rate.
Selinger noted that deputy premier Eric Robinson, who is also aboriginal affairs minister and the minister responsible for Manitoba Hydro, has called the NFA is a "modern-day treaty."
Rita Monias, who started the protests that led to the occupation on Jenpeg, brushed aside the premier's apology as meaningless unless it was followed by action.
"An apology doesn't mean much to me, to us. We need the implementation of the NFA to eradicate mass poverty and mass unemployment," she said.
"This is what the people want, not just an apology — something to live on. Something to survive on."
To that end, an agreement to work towards implementing the NFA was signed Tuesday by Pimicikamak, the province and hydro.
"It’s a very important document that will change the life of our kids," Merrick said. "We don't want to live off of handouts from the government."