Allegations of sexual abuse, racism revealed in report on hydro projects' impact in northern Manitoba

Manitoba has asked the RCMP to investigate allegations Manitoba Hydro workers sexually abused Indigenous women in a remote northern community after the utility arrived in the area in the 1960s.

Allegations 'extremely disheartening and disturbing,' says Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires

The Keeyask generating station is being built on the lower Nelson River near Gillam, Man. (Keeyask Hydropower Limited Partnership.)

Manitoba has asked the RCMP to investigate allegations Manitoba Hydro workers sexually abused Indigenous women in a remote northern community after the utility arrived in the area in the 1960s.

The allegations are found in a new report from the Clean Environment Commission, an arm's-length provincial agency that was tasked with studying the social impact of hydro development past and present on surrounding communities.

The commission met with members of Makeso Sakahikan Inninuwak, also known as Fox Lake Cree Nation, back in January. The First Nation, which requested the hearing, is located 762 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, near Gillam. 

In 165 pages of testimony from that meeting, community members, elders and band councillors described the effects of 4,000 Manitoba Hydro workers descending on their small community beginning in the 1960s.

In addition to sexual assaults, they spoke of racism, feeling marginalized and a lack of socioeconomic opportunities. 

"I felt helpless," Marie Henderson said, according to the commission's transcript. "We weren't included — we weren't included as humans in our own community. We were nothing to them."

Franklin Arthurson compared Manitoba Hydro's impact on the community to that of residential schools. He said his late wife spent 10 years in a residential school before coming home to find her community had been "invaded by Manitoba Hydro.

"She came home from a hellhole called residential school to another hellhole called Hydro project."

Fox Lake's traditional territory includes the Kettle, Long Spruce and Limestone generating stations, as well as the Radisson and Henday converter stations. The Keeyask dam is still under construction in the area. 

A map showing Hydro dam and converter stations near Fox Lake Cree Nation, York Factor First Nation, War Lake First Nation and Tataskweyak Cree Nation. (Keeyask Hydropower Limited Partnership)

Manitoba Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires said her government takes the matter seriously and will be referring the report to the RCMP for investigation.

"The allegations of abuse contained within the report are, quite frankly, extremely disheartening and disturbing," she said.

Squires also said the report recommends the creation of a steering committee, with members of the provincial government and Manitoba Hydro, to discuss next steps. Indigenous and Northern Relations Minister Eileen Clarke will visit the community to discuss the report, Squires said. 

Opposition leader Wab Kinew said the allegations are disturbing, and questioned why the report was released on Tuesday afternoon when it was completed in May. 

He suggested the government released the report now for political reasons, to try to change the channel from Tuesday's news that the government delayed releasing a report detailing heavy metal contamination in St. Boniface homes for more than a month. 

"To me, that's pouring salt on the wound," Kinew said.

Squires said she first saw the hydro report June 14 and took time to consult with her colleagues in government before releasing it. 

Fox Lake Chief Walter Spence declined comment on Tuesday.

Manitoba Hydro spokesperson Scott Powell said the company takes the allegations "extremely seriously and will fully support and co-operate with any RCMP review of the period in question.

"We were not made aware of any specific incidents, and in light of it being referred to the RCMP, it would be inappropriate to comment further."

RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Paul Manaigre said the force was made aware of the report Tuesday and it's under review.

Community members describe abuse, racism

The transcript includes testimony from people who grew up in the community describing the racism they encountered in and around Gillam as Hydro workers from the south began to move in.

"They just came in and took over. We were pushed aside," Marie Henderson told the hearing.

"It even got to the point where they said we were squatters in our own land, because they wanted the construction to be built."

Shawna Henderson Arthurson said outsiders who came to the community started their own businesses, instead of using businesses run by locals.

And others told the hearing that outside workers sexually abused women in the community. 

"A lot of things that happened to us as young women. Like today, I'm 65 years old, and all of this stuff that happened, I was in my 20s," Sophie Lockhart said in her statement.

"And like there was a lot of, you could say an influx of workers that came into our community, where they would get us drunk and take advantage of us. Not just me, but my other friends."

Witnesses also described allegations of abuse at the hands of the RCMP.

"I've seen men, Fox Lake band members … get beaten up," Franklin Arthurson said.

He also said women would talk of being taken to jail for no reason and sexually abused in custody.  

It's not clear whether any of the allegations in the transcript were ever reported or tried in court.

'Are you willing to forgive Manitoba Hydro?'

John Peters, who in his address to the commission said he hoped to represent the youth, offered some hope that things for his generation would improve.

He said there are much more strict policies in place to protect the well-being of the locals with the Keeyask and Bipole III projects that are well underway.

Nonetheless, based on what happened in the past, he said he has doubts about Manitoba Hydro's motives. 

"Is Hydro doing all of this to create a facade for some behind-our-back business, or is this their truest efforts?" he said.

"I also have to question my people. Are you willing to forgive Manitoba Hydro for their neglect, ignorance and social crime?"

Like a 'predatory animal'

Further to the allegations made during the Fox Lake meeting, several other First Nations and impacted groups took issue with the report, called the Regional Cumulative Effects Assessment. 

Many of those groups took issue with the methodology of the report, the scope and the lack of Indigenous contribution.

In its submission, Pimicikamak Okimawin, also known as Cross Lake, said many of RCEA's overall conclusions were "based on weak evidence."

"The RCEA report leaves the impression that while hydroelectric development has had serious negative impacts, these were now either under control or tolerated," the report said of the Pimicikamak's feedback.

This, the submission suggests, underestimated the impacts of a process that involved "multiple forms of discrimination, dominance over decision-making, and exploitation of resources for the benefit of distant interests coupled with a lack of understanding and/ or disregard for the long-term health of the local people and the land."

In another submission, the South Indian Lake Fisher's Association asked the CEC to "scrap" the RCEA.

The submission stated that the RCEA fails to describe the regional cumulative effects of hydroelectric development on Southern Indian Lake.

The commission also met with representatives of the Tataskweyak Cree Nation in Split Lake in December.

Tataskweyak members told the committee how their quality of life compared before and after the development of hydroelectric generating stations.

"One community member stated that in the pre-development era, residents had everything they needed. Fish were abundant, the water was healthy, and the land was teeming with wildlife. The community was self-sufficient," the report states.

"She recalled how community members had been promised that hydroelectric development would bring them low-cost electricity.

"Now, she said, the water is polluted; the cost of power, astronomical. She felt that Manitoba Hydro played with people like a 'predatory animal.'"

With files from The Canadian Press