Manitoba Hydro diversion devastates environment, campaign demanding action from conservation minister says
Campaign calls on Sarah Guillemard to deny permanent licence request for Churchill River Diversion
A billboard in Winnipeg's Fort Richmond area calls on Manitoba's environment minister to take action on what advocates say is a decades-long problem with environmental degradation caused by a Manitoba Hydro diversion program.
The billboard points to an online petition asking the Conservation Minister Sarah Guillemard — the MLA for Fort Richmond — to decline a permanent licence request for Manitoba Hydro's Churchill River Diversion, which was created to increase water flow to generating stations.
That request asks that Hydro be allowed to continue its Augmented Flow Program, which allows the Crown energy corporation to vary the water levels flowing from the Churchill River into South Indian Lake.
"We decided that something more needed to happen. Obviously the minister was not hearing us," said Angela Levasseur, who is from O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation (also known South Indian Lake) and launched the online petition.
"Obviously we had to do something drastic to get her attention."
Critics say the province has allowed Manitoba Hydro to manipulate the flow of water through the Churchill River Diversion beyond the guidelines set out in its original licence, signed in the 1970s. That's done through the Augmented Flow Program, approved in 1986.
Each year, the province signs an interim licence approving the greater flow rate.
Now, Hydro has requested a final licence for the Churchill River Diversion, and "has asked that the Augmented Flow Program terms be incorporated" in that, a spokesperson for Guillemard says.
Levasseur says that for years, members of her community have written letters to the province and conservation ministers, but have been mostly been met with silence.
That's why the billboard addressed to Guillemard and a poster on a transit shelter "are right smack dab in her Fort Richmond riding," said Levasseur.
"We will not be ignored."
Her group plans to put up another billboard near Polo Park shopping centre, where Manitoba Hydro has a mural of its own.
Community members say since the Missi Falls dam, which diverts water from the Churchill River into South Indian Lake, was built in the 1970s, impacts on the environment have been devastating.
"We've just seen total degradation of everything. We've lost all our beaches, hundreds of islands have disappeared, massive amounts of erosion that's continuous and annual," said Leslie Dysart, who is also from O-Pipon-Na-Piwin, about 775 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.
"Historically, South Indian Lake was a fishing community.… [It] was the third-largest fishery in North America."
But the dam led to the failure of that industry, Dysart says, as fish populations dropped and the dam's construction meant the community had to relocate.
Levasseur says the dam has also impacted the quality of the lake water.
"Prior to the building of the Missi Falls dam, you could take a cup and you could dip it into the lake and drink that water.… It was free of chemicals, it was free of mercury," she said.
"I would challenge the minister or the premier to to have a sip of water from South Indian Lake. I can tell you right now that that would never happen.
"This was almost 45 years ago, and the destruction was tremendous. It had permanent and long-lasting effects."
'Hydro power is not clean energy'
In addition to getting the province's attention, the hope is that the billboard and petition campaign will educate the public on where their power comes from.
"When somebody flicks on the light and … part of that power comes from South Indian Lake, they need to understand it's not just flicking on a light," said Dysart.
Levasseur hopes the program will challenge people's perception of hydro power.
"We're hoping that the people of Manitoba will realize that hydro power is not clean energy by any means, and that it is not in the best interests of the First Nations communities in northern Manitoba … for Manitoba Hydro to be granted this final licence," said Levasseur.
A spokesperson for Guillemard says the province has been in consultation with the community about the program since 2009.
The conservation minister is reviewing the summary of the consultation, "and is expected to make a licensing decision in the coming weeks," the spokesperson wrote.
Manitoba Hydro did not respond to CBC's request for comment.
With files from Cameron MacLean