Manitoba

'Keeyask-atraz' workers describe prison-like conditions, racism, substance abuse at Hydro site

Workers at a northern Manitoba Hydro construction site known to some as “Keeyask-atraz” described a prison-like environment plagued by fear, intimidation, drug and alcohol abuse and discrimination, says a 2017 report that was recently made public.

Report made 64 recommendations based on interviews with employees in 2016

Workers at the Keeyask hydroelectric power construction project described an environment that fostered racism, discrimination and harassment. (Manitoba Hydro)

Workers at a northern Manitoba Hydro construction site known to some as "Keeyask-atraz" described a prison-like environment plagued by fear, intimidation, drug and alcohol abuse and discrimination, says a 2017 report that was recently made public.

The report is based on interviews with workers at the Keeyask Generation Project near Gillam, Man., about 740 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, in 2016.

"The [Keeyask Workplace Culture Assessment] found a culture of discrimination does exist at the Keeyask site," the report said.

Indigenous employees reported hearing racial slurs and derogatory comments, and complained that they were not given work they were qualified to do. Tensions ran high between Indigenous and non-Indigenous employees who were brought in from elsewhere to work on the project.

"We found that many people bring their preconceived notions of race to the workforce and when the work environment is difficult, these biases find expression through verbal abuse of construction co‐workers and workers employed by other contractors," the report said.

Hydro and its partners — Tataskweyak Cree Nation, War Lake First Nation, York Factory First Nation and Fox Lake Cree Nation — commissioned the First Nations-owned human resources firm D. Carriere and Associates to investigate problems at the site.

Chief Betsy Kennedy of War Lake First Nation, one of the First Nations involved in the project, said she was disturbed by the report's findings.

There has been some changes but you can't stop racism right away.- War Lake First Nation Chief Betsy Kennedy

"For ourselves, we wanted to make sure that things like this weren't happening and to address it in a manner that helps our members and other Aboriginals," she said. 

She said since the report was written last year, a number of recommendations from the community, including cultural awareness programs, have been implemented.

But there is still more to be done, she said.

"To this day, there has been some changes but you can't stop racism right away."

'High level of fear of retaliation'

The firm heard from 179 employees and managers through in-person interviews and an online survey.

"The [investigators] found a high level of fear of retaliation and retribution at the site among those interviewed," the report said.

The report also described a lack of Indigenous cultural awareness among non-Indigenous workers, which exacerbated misunderstandings and contributed to feelings of mistrust and resentment.

The release of the Keeyask report comes a week after the release of a Clean Environment Commission report outlining historical allegations of sexual harassment by Hydro workers in northern communities in the 1960s.

The Keeyask report makes 64 recommendations. A spokesperson for Manitoba Hydro says 63 of those recommendations have been implemented and the final one is currently being implemented.

Hydro started a campaign to address discrimination and harassment at the site, worked to foster relationships between workers and trusted advisors to address workplace concerns, standardized policies and procedures for investigating complaints, and improved training for supervisors and managers, the spokesperson said.

The 695-megawatt Keeyask generation project is the second time Manitoba Hydro has partnered with First Nations communities on a major hydroelectric development project.

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