'An open wound:' Fox Lake leadership says historical sexual abuse by Hydro workers haunts residents

Leaders from Fox Lake Cree Nation say a damning report unveiling allegations of sexual abuse by Manitoba Hydro workers in the 1960s only scratches the surface.

Chief of northern First Nation accuses federal government of failing to assert community's rightful place

Manitoba Hydro employees are seen working on the Limestone generating station in 1991, which was built in the traditional territory of Fox Lake Cree Nation. Members of the First Nation have accused utility workers who moved to the community to construct big infrastructure projects in the 1960s of sexual assault and racism. (CBC)

Leaders of Fox Lake Cree Nation say a damning report exposing allegations of sexual abuse by Manitoba Hydro workers in the 1960s only scratches the surface.

Residents of the remote northern community testified they were victims of sexual assault, racism, feelings of marginalization and limited socioeconomic opportunities, according to a new report released Tuesday by the Manitoba Clean Environment Commission.

Chief Walter Spence said the 165 pages of testimony triggered a range of emotions.

"Our experience is an open wound," Spence said in a media release Wednesday. "This affects us all. I would like to think that we are moving forward but when days like yesterday happen, I wonder if anyone is listening? We have never been silent and we have only missed someone to listen."

The troubling allegations demand a investigation, the RCMP said Wednesday. The agency is reviewing the report as well as a transcript from the commission's meeting with Fox Lake residents on Jan. 19, 2018. The RCMP is including the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba in its discussions. 

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs will refer the report's "disturbing allegations" to the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, it said in a media release Wednesday. 

Grand Chief Arlen Dumas described the allegations as another example of Indigenous women facing disproportionate levels of violence.

Livelihoods wrecked

"While there are allegations of rape and sexual abuse, we also have experienced the loss and degradation of our land, water and traditional ways of life," Dumas said in the release. "These developments have impacted the ability to hunt, trap and fish for First Nations people, which also destroys our economic livelihood. It's important that we learn from and take action on what is shared in this report."

Fox Lake Cree Nation requested the hearing by the Clean Environment Commission, an arm's-length provincial agency tasked with studying the social impact of hydro developments past and present.

The commission tried to describe the effects of 4,000 Manitoba Hydro workers descending on the First Nation, located 762 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, beginning in the 1960s.

Testimony from people who grew up in the First Nation described the racism they encountered in and around the community of Gillam as Hydro workers moved in.

'Pushed aside' on their land

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

Other residents said the outside workers sexually abused women. 

"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," Sophie Lockhart said in her statement. "Not just me, but my other friends."

The media release said Fox Lake was recognized as its own First Nation in 1947, but it has struggled to secure reserve land within Gillam ever since.

Spence said he spoke to Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett about the longstanding issue at the Assembly of First Nations meeting this July.

"If Canada had listened and done more we could have done something about these horrific effects," Spence said. "I requested a reply within 90 days and (I) remind the minister of this."

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 remains 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)

Despite the allegations of historical abuse outlined in the report, Spence described Manitoba Hydro as one of their community partners, committing to "better the life of its members," he said.

"We need their continued support now even more."

The provincial government intends to send Indigenous and Northern Relations Minister Eileen Clarke to visit with affected residents and communities, but Spence wants the premier to pay his community a visit. 

"We need more than a photo op," he said.