Manitoba

Manitoba Hydro pulls majority of workers from Keeyask project amid blockades

Manitoba Hydro says it has delayed a planned shift rotation and pulled the majority of its workers from the Keeyask hydro project over an ongoing blockade there.

MP sends letter to Crown corporation over reports Keeyask worker didn't self-isolate

A crowd of people from all four partner First Nations joined in solidarity as Tetaskweyak Cree Nation was served with an injunction to take down their blockade at Keeyask on Wednesday. (Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak/Facebook)

Manitoba Hydro says it has delayed a planned shift rotation and pulled the majority of its workers from the Keeyask hydro project late Thursday over an ongoing blockade there.

The blockade, which now involves all four First Nations who are partners in the project, was started by Tataskweyak Cree Nation last weekend in order to prevent the potential transmission of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The First Nation was served with a court injunction on Wednesday evening, but Chief Doreen Spence ripped it up.

"We have not lifted our lockdown and will remain in place until we reach some type of agreement," she told CBC News on Friday.

Meanwhile, New Democrat MP for Churchill-Keewatinook Aski Niki Ashton wrote a letter on Friday to Manitoba Hydro alleging a Keeyask worker didn't self-isolate before going to work there.

Ashton says she received a "reliable report" that a worker was bragging about not self-isolating ahead of going back to work.

"This severely compromises Hydro's commitment to keep workers and your four First Nations partners safe," she said in her letter to the Crown corporation's CEO Jay Grewal, which was published on her website on Friday.

Manitoba Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen said the allegations are false.

"We have reviewed our travel records May 15-22. Two people travelled from other provinces to Keeyask during this time. We have confirmed they self-isolated," he said in an email.

Earlier this week, Owen said the Crown corporation is limiting the number of out-of-province and out-of-country workers at the site. They have to self-isolate for 14 days and test negative for COVID-19 before they're allowed to return.

Keeyask is now in care and maintenance mode, which means only about 100 people are on site to provide security and maintain the operations, Owen says.

Four nearby First Nations are involved in the Keeyask hydro project. They are also involved in blocking the shift change. (Duk Han Lee/CBC)

"The decision to go to care and maintenance was made when it became clear the illegal blockade was impacting the safety of those at site and their well-being by blocking shipments of food, waste removal and other critical supplies," he said.

Tataskweyak councillor Nathan Neckoway said people at the blockade aren't letting anything through because the First Nations want the operations to cease until the COVID-19 threat is over.

"We've been saying our safety and well-being is at risk since the beginning," he said. 

The worker shift change, which was supposed to happen on Tuesday, and would have replaced the 600 workers on site at the time with 1,000 others — including some from outside of Manitoba and Canada — was postponed, Owen said.

He added the slowdown of operations is costing the Crown corporation and its ratepayers more than $1 million a day, plus the costs of transporting workers out of the area, back in at a later date and contractor claims.

Members of the First Nations have said they weren't consulted about the shift change, ramping up construction on the project or the care and maintenance mode, but Owen said that's not true.

Manitoba Hydro CEO Jay Grewal has tried to set up a conference call on Wednesday and the Crown corporation has been in touch about its pandemic plans since mid-March, Owen said.

Although a public health order prohibits non-essential travel from southern Manitoba into the north, Manitoba Hydro says it was approved by provincial health officials to go ahead with the shift change and has outlined a plan to make sure everyone stays healthy.

"Our main focus in developing our pandemic plan for Keeyask is the safety and well-being of our workforce, minimizing the potential risk of COVID introduction at the site and minimizing potential transmission to and from the site to local communities," Owen said.

"The plan is comprehensive, responds to recommendations and advice from public health officials and has been endorsed by the chief medical officer of Manitoba."

However, the First Nations are still worried the move would put their safety at risk.

Garrison Settee, the Grand Chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which is involved in the blockade, told CBC News earlier in the week this is a "culture clash."

"I believe that our people value the lives of their people over corporate interests and that's something that we hold very close to our hearts."

First Nations in Northern Manitoba are keeping road blockades up this weekend. They are cutting off worker access to a remote hydro camp, as the First Nations try to keep COIVD-19 out of their communities. Austin Grabish has the details. 2:02

With files from Sam Samson