First Nations partners of Keeyask 'not backing down' from blockades over COVID-19 fears

All four First Nations who are partners in the Keeyask hydro project are now involved in blocking workers from entering the northern Manitoba work site, as they anticipate being served with a court injunction on Wednesday.

Manitoba Hydro says it will gradually bring 1,000 workers back to northern Manitoba work site

People from Tataskweyak Cree Nation block Provincial Road 280 into Manitoba Hydro's Keeyask site. Nathan Neckoway says all four First Nations partnering with Manitoba Hydro on the Keeyask project are involved in the blockade. (Submitted by Nathan Neckoway)

All four First Nations who are partners in the Keeyask hydro project are now blocking workers from entering the northern Manitoba work site, as they wait for a court injunction against their blockade to be served Wednesday evening.

A number of Tataskweyak Cree Nation community members who are concerned about the possible spread of COVID-19 started blocking Provincial Road 280 and the north access road to the Keeyask site on the weekend in an attempt to stop a worker shift change scheduled for Tuesday. 

"We're not going anywhere. We're going to stand our ground," said Nathan Neckoway, a Tataskweyak Cree Nation councillor involved in the blockade.

Fox Lake Cree Nation, another Keeyask partner, issued a state of emergency and locked down its community Tuesday. Members of Fox Lake also created a blockade on the Keeyask south access road.

"How are we going to allow 1,200 people to come into our territory and fill that work site when these people, these employees could be carrying the COVID virus?" Neckoway said.

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak supports the blockade and wrote a letter to the prime minister expressing 'urgent concern.' (Submitted by Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak)

In March, about 600 Hydro workers volunteered to stay on site to continue operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tuesday's scheduled shift change was to switch out those workers and replace them with about 1,000 others from Canada and the United States.

"We were not included in the discussion of the plan for the shift change," said Robert Wavey, a band member and spokesperson for Fox Lake Cree Nation. "It was given to [First Nations] after Hydro came up with their plan."

He says Hydro didn't say that the shift change meant ramping up operations.

The Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench issued an injunction on Monday, ordering the blockade be removed and Hydro be granted access to the construction site.

Mounties will serve the injunction Wednesday evening, an RCMP news release says.

In response, representatives from War Lake First Nation and York Factory First Nation are joining the other First Nation Keeyask partners on the front lines, Neckoway said. All four First Nations are located near the Keeyask work site.

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee is at the blockade and wrote a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday expressing his "urgent concern" about workers arriving at the site.

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

"Our First Nations leaders do not want to see a repeat of what is happening in La Loche, Sask.," Settee said in the letter, referencing a COVID-19 outbreak in the northern and largely Indigenous town, which affected more than 100 people.

CBC News has asked the prime minister's office for comment.

Amnesty International also issued a news release in support of the First Nations on Wednesday, calling on Manitoba Hydro to comply with the request to restrict access to the site.

Keeyask workers to return gradually

Manitoba Hydro appeared to back down from its initial plans on Wednesday.

Spokesperson Bruce Owen told CBC News it will bring back workers slowly and deliberately.

"The shift rotation will be a gradual process — not all at once. Our plan is to have approximately 1,000 people on site in about three weeks," he said in an email.

Leaders of the First Nations expressed concern that some of the workers were coming from out of the province and outside Canada, where COVID-19 numbers may be higher.

Owen said when all the workers are back in three weeks, fewer than 10 will be from out of the country and between 100 and 150 will be from outside the province.

"Significant steps have been taken to minimize those numbers, in response to concerns," he said.

Out-of-country workers have to self-isolate for 14 days in the province before they're allowed on site, Hydro officials said. Workers also will be tested for COVID-19 and their tests must come back negative before they're allowed to work.

Manitoba Hydro says its workers have to test negative for COVID-19 to work at Keeyask. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

According to Settee, these measures to test incoming workers and bring them in slowly aren't strict enough to protect community members.

"I think that the risk is still there, regardless of how many people are transported in increments, and I think that the people are not satisfied with that. They would rather not have anyone coming in," he said.

Settee believes the dispute between Manitoba Hydro and the First Nations amounts to a "clash of cultural values."

"I always believe that the safety of human lives is paramount to anything, and … as Indigenous people, we place every human life over corporate interests any day," he says.

Enforcing injunction

Manitoba Hydro won't comment on enforcement of the court injunction, because that's the RCMP's jurisdiction, Owen said.

Police plan to serve the injunction order in a "respectful manner that is culturally sensitive," an RCMP news release said.

"The community members at the blockades have a lawful right to protest and companies have a lawful right to complete their mandated work," the release said.

"The RCMP is working hard to protect both these rights and ensure all parties and public are kept safe."

Rumours about possible arrests were circulated online, but the RCMP said they are unfounded.

Although RCMP say no arrests are anticipated, Neckoway said he's ready to go that far if need be.

"We're not just going to drop everything and put our tail between our legs."

With files from Sam Samson and Nick Frew