Manitoba

Commission heard sexual-assault allegations about Hydro workers in 2012: former chair

Manitoba's Clean Environment Commission heard testimony in 2012 of racism and sexual assault by Hydro project workers on Indigenous people in the north. Terry Sargeant, he commission's chair at the time, says "in hindsight, perhaps we should have done more."

'In hindsight, perhaps we should have done more,' Terry Sargeant says

Allegations of abuse, racism and sexual assaults go back through several decades of Hydro work in Manitoba's north. (Manitoba Hydro)

The former head of Manitoba's Clean Environment Commission says even though the panel wasn't mandated to look at the socio-economic effects of massive Hydro developments, perhaps it should have dug deeper into those issues.

Terry Sargeant was the chair of the CEC from 2004 to 2016. The commission heard some testimony in 2012 from community members of Fox Lake Cree First Nation who described sexual assaults, racism and abuse by Hydro Manitoba workers.

The issues have risen to prominence this week after a CEC cumulative effects assessment of northern Hydro projects was released by the province. 

The report included testimony of sexual assault, racism and abuse against Indigenous community members in the region by workers on Manitoba Hydro projects.

Sargeant and his co-commissioners were in Gillam in 2012 as part of the environmental assessment of the Keeyask dam project.

What they heard from women who testified shocked the panel, he says.

I think that if we 'outsiders' from Winnipeg or the south, not from their community, think we can fix it, we are way off base. They have to be involved in any kind of process of reconciliation."- Terry Sargeant, former chair of the Clean Environment Commission

"It was quite stunning and very heart-breaking, and they had been through some very tough times. We certainly felt for them," Sargeant told CBC News.

Sargeant says the commissioners felt at the time the women who spoke didn't want their testimony included in the CEC report, nor was it in the scope of what the CEC was examining.

Fox Lake Cree First Nation itself had done a series of examinations into the abuses starting about 2009 and kept those submissions under wraps out of respect for the victims.

The CEC panel would ultimately recommend a separate look at the effects of Hydro projects in Manitoba's north, which was completed and sent to the Progressive Conservative government in June.

In retrospect, Sargeant now believes, perhaps more could have been done.

"I can't recall if we as a panel had specific discussions about it, and I'm sure we could have done more. But it's hindsight. Perhaps we should have. I don't know right now," Sargeant said.

The former CEC chair says regardless what could or should have been done in the past, major efforts to help those communities heal have to be begin and they have to be driven by those who were affected.

"I think that if we 'outsiders' from Winnipeg or the south, not from their community, think we can fix it, we are way off base. They have to be involved in any kind of process of reconciliation," Sargeant said.

I can't recall if we as a panel had specific discussions about it, and I'm sure we could have done more. But it's hindsight. Perhaps we should have. I don't know right now.-  Terry Sargeant

The retired politician says there was no political interference from government at the time and the conclusions the commissioners reached were made independently. 

Sargeant is critical of how the Progressive Conservative government managed the release of the CEC's report this week, saying the Tories should have warned the communities  the details were being published.

Those sentiments were echoed earlier this week by Fox Lake Cree Nation Chief Walter Spence, who said in a release his community expected overtures from Premier Brian Pallister, not one of his ministers.

A Manitoba Hydro spokesperson says the utility has offered the communities trauma counsellors for anyone who might need help.

In a statement issued Friday, Indigenous Affairs Minister Eileen Clark said "our government is working collaboratively across departments to develop a comprehensive response. This response will involve the impacted communities and will work to address the needs that they identify."

A spokesperson for Brian Pallister said the premier is wrapping up a two-week vacation in Costa Rica but is in contact with staff daily and is aware of the CEC report. He said the premier will be back at work next week.

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