Province calls for meeting amid feuds with Métis federation, Manitoba Hydro

The Progressive Conservative government wants members of the Manitoba Metis Federation and Manitoba Hydro to convene this month in the shadow of public disagreements with the Crown corporation and subsequent legal threats from the federation.

No word on nature of meeting, but MMF president feels it's likely just formality, won't resolve issues

Crown Services Minister Cliff Cullen has called a meeting with MMF and Manitoba Hydro. (CBC)

The Progressive Conservative government wants members of the Manitoba Metis Federation and Manitoba Hydro to convene this month in the aftermath of public disagreements with the Crown corporation and subsequent legal threats from the federation.

Crown Services Minister Cliff Cullen reached out to the leadership of both organizations to meet but wouldn't say why.

"We don't know," said MMF president David Chartrand, identifying April 20 as the expected date of the meeting.

Manitoba Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen said he could only confirm that a meeting is being arranged and that corporation president and CEO Kelvin Shepherd will attend.

All but one member of Manitoba Hydro's board of directors resigned last month — only Progressive Conservative MLA Cliff Graydon stayed on — amid accusations from former board chair Sandy Riley that requests over the past year to meet and discuss policy issues directly with Premier Brian Pallister were ignored.

That set off a war of words in the media, with Pallister instead claiming Hydro's board really resigned because the province refused to permit a deal that would see $67.5 million flow from the Crown corporation to the Manitoba Metis Federation over 50 years in exchange for no opposition to future projects, including a Minnesota-Manitoba transmission line.

'Persuasion money'

Pallister killed the deal in March and characterized it as "persuasion money," which drew the ire of Chartrand and a sharp rebuttal from Riley.

Premier Brian Pallister answers questions about the resignation of Manitoba Hydro's board at the Manitoba Legislature. (CBC)

"The agreement with the Manitoba Metis Federation was carefully vetted by the board. It met our legal obligations, encompassed a multiplicity of projects, covered a 50-year period, and was structured to ensure the money went to the people who should benefit from it," Riley said in a statement in March.

Chartrand claimed the premier was resorting to divisive "race baiting," suggested Pallister resign and then threatened to take the province to court. 

On March 28, Chartrand announced the federation would head to court to fight the provincial decision to stop the deal before construction on the transmission line got underway.

"It's something I tried to avoid, if you look at how many years it's taken us to negotiate this deal," Chartrand said Friday.

Turning the page

On Friday, Cullen confirmed he hopes to get some face time with Chartrand and Shepherd.

"While multiple dates and times have been proposed, this meeting has not been confirmed by either of the other affected parties," a spokesperson with Cullen's office said in a statement Friday.

"We will not be speaking to the agenda of the meeting at this time, only to say that this meeting falls under the purview of the Turning the Page Agreement signed by all three parties."

Lawyers and consultants representing the three sides have already met "in hopes of clearing up outstanding matters" but to no avail, leaving the possibility of a face-to-face meeting between the leaders as the final option before things go to court, Chartrand said.

But Chartrand says he already feels like the meeting with Cullen is just a legal formality and the premier hasn't changed his mind about stopping the deal.

David Chartrand speaks to media at a news conference March 28 after announcing legal action over the cancellation of an agreement with Manitoba Hydro. (Bert Savard/CBC)

"Right now under the Pallister watch, it's very clear ministers don't have authority nor power," Chartrand said.

"No minister I've ever yet met with since he's been elected, every minister has told me point-blank they have to go back to the premier to get direction."

'Tried to avoid' legal action: MMF

Before it was quashed, the transmission deal was approved by the former iteration of Manitoba Hydro's board based on recommendations by senior management at the utility. The terms of the agreement were passed along to the Pallister government last summer.

The line would move from a dam in the north of the province to U.S. customers, weaving through traditional Métis and First Nation lands along the way.

Chartrand said such deals are common between governments and First Nations and Métis Nations in Canada, but Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler previously denied that it was "normal practice."

"It is not compensation to land rights, it is money to ensure that they will not oppose the project, and that is clearly stated in black and white in the agreement," Schuler said last week.

Chartrand said working with the current administration has been challenging, citing $650,000 in funding earmarked for Métis health care that was cut in November 2016 as an example.

He said the province has failed to communicate with Indigenous partners in other cases, including one involving Lake St. Martin.

Chartrand criticized Schuler for his role in granting sole-sourced contracts for a road to flood-ravaged Lake St. Martin and a channel to help alleviate future flooding issues in the community. The minister previously said the contract went through a tendering process, but it was later revealed that wasn't the case.

Based on the current controversy with Manitoba Hydro, the Southeast Stakeholders Coalition, which represents a group of landowners living near the proposed transmission line location, called on the National Energy Board to pause public consultations on the Minnesota-Manitoba project, scheduled to begin this June, and asked for an investigation.

Sagkeeng wants pause on transmission project

And now Sagkeeng First Nation, one of the affected groups, also says it isn't confident with negotiation efforts from Hydro and the province.

"Sagkeeng said very clearly to Manitoba, 'We are not done consulting, we do not consider the consultations to be completed, we need to talk about accommodation,' and Manitoba said, 'consultations are over,'" said Corey Shefman, a lawyer representing the First Nation. "That's not how consultation works.

"When you consult with First Nations you must do so with the intention of substantially addressing the impacts of these projects on their rights. Manitoba Hydro and the Manitoba government have trod on the rights of First Nations for too long already."

Legal counsel for Roseau River First Nation filed a noticed Thursday saying the community supports Sagkeeng's position and it deserves additional consultation.

"[Roseau River First Nation] insists that Manitoba Hydro provide a detailed assessment of appropriate compensation to all affected Indigenous groups impacted by the project, and along with the evidence that the project is able to support such compensation," reads the letter addressed to National Energy Board secretary Sherri Young from lawyer J. R. Norman Boudreau.

"It is the position of [Roseau River] that no further hearing on this matter should proceed until Manitoba Hydro has satisfactorily addressed these issues."

Chartrand said the MMF is confident it has a case if things go to court.

"Everybody knows that nothing goes through without Pallister's approval," Chartrand said. "Everybody knows he runs the ship by himself. He's a single captain and the rest aren't even sailors. In fact, they're the ones who wash the boat and take care of the rooms​.

"Trust me, we won't forget this come election time."

With files from Bryce Hoye and Leif Larsen