Manitoba

A secret 'you didn't speak of': Ex-MLA recalls hearing Manitoba Hydro worker allegations

The alleged sexual abuse of Indigenous women in northern Manitoba during the 1960s by Manitoba Hydro workers didn't come as a surprise to the province's former aboriginal and northern affairs minister.

'I think that was well recognized,' Eric Robinson says of sex abuse claims made in new report

Eric Robinson, a former NDP MLA who served for many years as the province's deputy premier, recalls hearing rumblings of abuse by temporary workers as a young child growing up in northern Manitoba.

The alleged sexual abuse of Indigenous women in northern Manitoba during the 1960s by Manitoba Hydro workers didn't come as a surprise to the province's former aboriginal and northern affairs minister.

Eric Robinson, a former NDP MLA who served for many years as the province's deputy premier, says as a young child growing up in northern Manitoba he recalled workers coming into the community and hearing rumblings about abuse.

"I think that was well recognized. It was something you didn't speak of in those days and it was something that you felt almost embarrassed to go to the police about," Robinson said.

On Tuesday, the Manitoba government released a report it's had since May from the Clean Environment Commission which was tasked with studying the social impact of hydro development on First Nations and the effects of 4,000 Manitoba Hydro workers descending on Fox Lake Cree Nation located 762 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg in the 1960s.

A Manitoba Hydro spokesperson says two-day, "in-depth" Indigenous cultural awareness workshops are offered to workers. (CBC)

The 86-page report which relies on 165 pages of often emotional testimony from Fox Lake Cree Nation community members, contains allegations of rape by hydro workers and describes discrimination felt by members who recalled being termed "dirty Indians" and "wagon burners."

One man recalled how how his nephew and the child's brother wanted to go to a Manitoba Hydro Christmas party to meet Santa Claus but weren't allowed in.

"They stood outside looking through the window, watching Santa Claus give presents and candy to the white children.… They must have figured, I guess, Santa Claus didn't bring them presents for Fox Lake children. How traumatizing could it be for a six-year-old boy to look through a window?" Franklin Arthurson​ is quoted in a commission transcript as saying.

He said the incident still bothers his brother who is now in his 50s.

The report cited testimony from community members who alleged construction workers in the community would get women inebriated and then take advantage of them.

People spoke of witnessing rape and being unable to interfere, and the RCMP is accused of failing to take complaints seriously. The force is now reviewing the report and on Wednesday Sgt. Paul Manaigre called the allegations within the transcript troubling. He said Mounties are now in touch with the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba.

'They need to investigate'

The president of the Native Women's Association of Canada also says the allegations don't surprise her, saying stories have been passed down through families over the years. She says she was surprised the province didn't release the report sooner and is glad the RCMP is reviewing the file.

Manitoba Minister of Sustainable Development Rochelle Squires apologized on Wednesday after the province released a report that alleges Manitoba Hydro development workers abused Indigenous women in the 1960s. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

"These reports need to be taken for the truth that they are, and they need to investigate these as they would investigate any other reported activity," Francyne Joe said.

She describes an economic power imbalance that occurs when well-paid, male temporary workers are brought into remote First Nations for resource work, saying the trouble starts when the men form short-term relationships with women and, having little to do, turn to drugs and drink.

"It's almost like these Indigenous women are targeted for this kind of violent behaviour," she said.

The RCMP is in touch with the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba regarding allegations Mounties turned a blind eye to sexual abuse complaints made by Indigenous women in northern Manitoba in the 1960s. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Joy believes Indigenous communities and women need to be consulted before future projects are given the green light. She also wants corporations to offer training to understand Indigenous history.

Indigenous training offered to hydro workers

Manitoba Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen said two-day "in-depth" Indigenous cultural awareness workshops that teach Indigenous history in Manitoba and Canada are offered to workers, adding the corporation has mandatory cultural training at the Keeyask dam project. 

Adele Perry, a historian at the University of Manitoba and an expert on colonialism, says Indigenous people have paid hard coin for Manitobans to live as they do today.

"It's something that is ongoing and it's built into the bones of the world that we live in," she said, referring to water from Shoal Lake 40 [a First Nations reserve straddling the border of Manitoba and Ontario on the shores of Shoal Lake], which has no clean tap water for its own members, before mentioning the lights we switch on are powered by Manitoba Hydro.

With files from Aviva Jacob, Sean Kavanagh and Susan Magas 

About the Author

​Austin Grabish started reporting when he was young, landing his first byline when he was just 18. He joined CBC in 2016 after freelancing for several outlets. ​​In 2018, he was part of a team of CBC journalists who won the Ron Laidlaw Award for the corporation's extensive digital coverage on asylum seekers crossing into Canada. Email: austin.grabish@cbc.ca