Manitoba dam protesters demand revenue sharing, hydro bill help

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger says he's willing to consider the demands of protesters from a northern First Nation occupying the grounds of a key power-generating station.

First Nation chief says protesters won't leave Jenpeg site until demands are met

RAW: First Nations members protest Jenpeg dam outside Manitoba Hydro HQ

8 years ago
Duration 0:42
First Nations members protest outside Manitoba Hydro's headquarters in downtown Winnipeg.

About 40 people protested outside the Manitoba Hydro building in downtown Winnipeg Thursday afternoon, saying the crown corporation has violated their treaty rights.

Cross Lake First Nation spokesperson Mervin Garrick said the community wants a revenue-sharing agreement with the Crown corporation, as well as a public apology and a visit from Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger.

Selinger bowed out of a planned trip to China after protesters set up an occupation site near the Jenpeg generating station earlier this week. 

Employees were allowed to leave but the protesters haven't let staff return. 

Thursday marked one week since the First Nation marched to the site to protest.

"We are not asking that the dams be dismantled," Garrrick told CBC Thursday. "We ask only that Hydro and governments apologize, clean up after themselves and learn to share."

The community also wants a say in how water levels are managed, a shoreline cleanup and help with residential hydro bills which hover around $600 a month in the winter.

Selinger told The Canadian Press he's willing to consider the protesters' demands.

The First Nation has some long-standing concerns that need to be addressed, Selinger said.

Protesters set up around a campfire near the Jenpeg generating station as their occupation of the site began last week. (Pimicikamak Occupation of Jenpeg/Facebook)
"Some of these concerns are long-standing issues that go back several decades," he said in an interview with The Canadian Press on Thursday. "They're asking for that to be paid attention to.

"We all believe in a spirit of reconciliation around these long-term flooding issues that happened decades ago, and we need to continue working on them."

While Selinger was enthusiastic about energy efficiency programs to lower the cost of hydro bills in the community, he said bringing in a revenue-sharing agreement is more complex.

"It's not easily done but we think there's (a) possibility of doing that and we're open to that discussion as we go forward."

Chief says Hydro must make amends

Cross Lake Chief Catherine Merrick said Manitoba Hydro has violated her people's treaty rights and must make amends. The band signed an agreement in 1977 after the Jenpeg dam was built, but Merrick said the Crown corporation and the provincial government haven't fulfilled their obligations.

Traditional lands are regularly flooded and the fragile shoreline is eroding, Merrick said. A handful of Cross Lake residents are employed by the dam, but there are none of the promised programs to "eradicate mass poverty and mass employment."

"If you're not going to be kind to my people, then we'll take back our land," she said Thursday before the rally at Manitoba Hydro's headquarters."That's exactly what we did."

The dam is a stone's throw from the community, Merrick said, but many people get disconnected because they can't pay their bills. The dam employs about 10 people from the Cross Lake community.

"If my people were able to work, they would be able to pay their hydro bills," she said. "Our elders, their average income on their pension is $1,200 a month. They pay between $600 to $700 on their hydro bill."

The occupation at Jenpeg is peaceful but will continue until there's some real progress, Merrick said.

Hydro President Scott Thomson and Stan Struthers, cabinet minister responsible for the corporation, met with protesters at the site. But Merrick said they want a visit from Selinger, who bowed out of a planned trade mission to China because of the occupation.

But he hasn't directly contacted the protesters, she said.

Selinger wouldn't say whether he plans to go to the site for a meeting.

"I'm certainly keeping an open mind on that as we work our way through the process."

Manitoba Hydro spokesman Scott Powell said employees are still working at the dam and it continues to operate. The utility is continuing to work with the First Nation, as well as with the federal and provincial governments, to resolve the situation, he said.

"Things are moving forward," Powell said. "The factors underlying the whole situation are pretty complex and they've got a long history. When they involve so many different parties, it's a complex situation."

Jenpeg, which cost $310 million to build, is about 525 kilometres north of Winnipeg and is key in Manitoba Hydro's northern electricity generation. The dam helps regulate the level of Lake Winnipeg, which has become swollen in recent years due to flooding. It also acts as a reservoir for other northern generating stations.

with files from CBC