Another Manitoba First Nation claims discrimination at hands of Hydro workers

The bombshell reports of sexual violence and discrimination allegedly perpetrated by Manitoba Hydro staff in a northern First Nation decades ago sound familiar to another community where people say they were plunged into chaos by the utility's development.

'A minority in our own community': Gerald McKay says Misipawistik Cree Nation was overrun by strangers

Thousands of people settled in and around Grand Rapids in the 1960s to build the local generating station. (Manitoba Hydro)

The bombshell reports of sexual violence and discrimination allegedly perpetrated by Manitoba Hydro staff in a northern First Nation decades ago sounds familiar to another community where people say they were plunged into chaos by the utility's development.

Gerald McKay says his community of Misipawistik Cree Nation, near Grand Rapids, Man., was stripped of its native language, its people were discriminated against and some were forced to walk in pairs overnight over fears for their safety after Hydro workers arrived in the northern community in the 1960s.

His allegations come on the heels of a damning report released last week by the Clean Environment Commission, an arm's-length provincial agency, revealing claims of sexual abuse and discrimination at Fox Lake Cree Nation.

Misipawistik Cree Nation, 400 kilometres north of Winnipeg, was forever changed by the thousands of workers who arrived to build a dam, McKay said.

The community was isolated from the outside world until a new road was built as development began, he said. Their community — which a couple hundred called home then — has never recovered, he said.

"Within a few months there were several thousand people here and so we became a minority in our own community here and English was the dominant language," said McKay, who was then only five years old and spoke Cree. "When we started school, we had to learn English."

I heard those ladies talking about the flashers and the peeping Toms.- Gerald McKay

McKay said he and other kids could no longer roam free to play.

"When all these strangers started coming in, our boundaries tightened. We couldn't leave the yard sometimes when there was talk of strangers in the bush."

Some of the people who lingered outside were homeless. They were among the thousands who sought work during the development boom, but missed out on employment.

Danger outside

"We couldn't go anywhere out of sight and there were bad people there. There were flashers," he said. "I heard those ladies talking about the flashers and the peeping Toms."

Women were grabbed, alcohol flowed liberally and fights were commonplace, he said. Students were punished for speaking their native tongue, while their families struggled to live off the land once they needed licences to hunt and fish, he said.

Manitoba Hydro did not respond Monday to a request for comment on the allegations. 

McKay said he never rode a bus to school, but he watched while a half-empty Hydro bus drove past him.

"When the local guys that were working for Hydro would drive that bus, they would come around the other way so they wouldn't have to go past all the kids that were walking."

The far-reaching effects of his community's unwanted transformation caused problems in McKay's family.

Anxiety persists

"I noticed a big change in my mother," he said. "Before things had been good. There was no trouble, there was no commotion. It was all relaxed. When this project started, my mother's personality changed. She became irritable, awake all night, and not sleeping."

McKay continues to struggle with anxiety.

Although Manitoba Hydro offered compensation to the community years ago to quell continued opposition to the dam, he wants the utility to invest in the First Nation they left behind while reaping the revenues.

"When you go into a community and you kill their namesake, the Grand Rapids, and then you leave us with nothing, which is what the rapids is now — there's no more rapids," he said.

"They should be investing in the community. We have high unemployment here. There's a lot of problems, a lot of poverty, and so we're sitting here with this big dam that's killed our fishing."

Grand Rapids Mayor Robert Buck believes the accounts from McKay and others need to be shared.

"There is a story here to tell and the people need to tell of their experience," he said.

Buck was a child when Hydro's workers arrived. They weren't afflicted by unemployment or alcoholism in those days.

"The community was changing. They brought in a hotel, and that basically went from morning till night," he said. "In some areas, it was like a Wild West town."

He hopes the survivors are somehow offered closure.

With files from Marcy Makusa, Isaac Wurmann