Lake Manitoba chief optimistic after 'meaningful dialogue' with province on flood project negotiations

The chief of Lake Manitoba First Nation says for the first time, he's optimistic about negotiations with the province on a massive flood protection project.

Cabinet ministers acknowledge in statement province fell short of collaborating in spirit of reconciliation

Lake Manitoba First Nation Chief Cornell McLean says the Interlake Reserves Tribal Council and the province agreed it was time to meet in the spirit of reconciliation to discuss the outlet channel project. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

The chief of Lake Manitoba First Nation says for the first time, he's optimistic about negotiations with the province on a massive flood protection project.

Chief Cornell McLean's comments came after the Interlake Reserves Tribal Council met with two cabinet ministers from the Progressive Conservative government Wednesday to discuss the Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin outlet channels project, which has pitted the two sides against each other in court.

The council, which represents Lake Manitoba and five other nations in the region, sat down with Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations Minister Alan Lagimodiere and Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Doyle Piwniuk.

McLean said this meeting with the province felt different than earlier ones.

"I've had 13 meetings with two different ministers in a total of eight years that I've been chief in Lake Manitoba. And I can tell you that, you know, meaningful dialogue today seemed real," he said Wednesday.

Plans began in 2011 for the outlet channels project, which would see two channels built to drain high water from Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin into Lake Winnipeg. 

The project plans also include adjusting the surrounding highway infrastructure and building three bridges, two water control structures and a 24-kilovolt distribution line, the province's release said.

In a joint statement released Wednesday, Lagimodiere and Piwniuk said the province is continuing its engagement process on the project, and they were honoured to meet with the chiefs on Pinaymootang First Nation on Wednesday.

"We acknowledge that we have fallen short in our responsibilities to collaborate fully in the true spirit and intent of reconciliation," their statement said, adding they "deeply appreciate" the chance to hear directly from Indigenous leaders.

The conversations will be "an important step in the path forward for engagement based on honesty, trust and respect," they said.

The flood protection project has yet to be approved. The province said it has submitted information to the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada as part of the process to receive federal environment approvals, its release said.

The ministers said there's still work to do, including completing the environmental assessment, as well as making sure the project is aligned with traditional knowledge and Indigenous understanding of the area.

New environmental committee

McLean said the two sides agreed it was time to meet in the spirit of reconciliation, after years of court battles.

In June, a Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench judge ruled that the province failed to properly consult First Nations communities on part of the project.

"Let's sit down. The only ones who are making the money is the lawyer," said McLean.

"We spent $1 million of our community money from four nations to fight the province. They spent $1 million. That million dollars could have [gone] to something else."

On Wednesday, the province pledged $3.1 million to establish the environmental advisory committee on the project, which McLean said the First Nations want to be part of.

That committee will provide advice and guidance during the planning, construction and eventual operation of the outlet channels, the government said in a news release.

McLean said the communities also want a southern flood agreement — like the one already in place in the north — to compensate First Nations if water levels drop too low.

"If we're … creating these diversions and channels and sending our water to the north so that Hydro can make, you know, millions and trillions of dollars — well, we need to be compensated for that," he said.

"Because sometimes the impacts are more than what the eye sees."

With files from Janice Grant and The Canadian Press