Another Keeyask blockade formed despite injunction on the first

A First Nations community in northern Manitoba has created a second blockade on a road to Manitoba Hydro's Keeyask construction site, despite a court injunction that orders for a previous blockade to be removed.

Tataskweyak Cree Nation given a court injunction for blocking PR 280; Fox Lake Cree Nation now has a blockade

A group of people from Tataskweyak Cree Nation say they'll keep blocking traffic into Manitoba Hydro's Keeyask dam site until the pandemic calms down. Another blockade was formed at the south access point on May 19. (Submitted by Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak)

A First Nations community in northern Manitoba has created a second blockade on a road to Manitoba Hydro's Keeyask construction site, despite a court injunction that orders for a previous blockade to be removed.

Fox Lake Cree Nation issued a state of emergency and locked down its community on Tuesday, while also forming a blockade on the south access road to the construction site.

The blockade is an attempt to stop a worker shift change scheduled for Tuesday because the community is concerned about the possible spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. 

In March, about 600 Hydro workers volunteered to stay on site to continue operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tuesday's scheduled shift change would switch out the volunteers and replace them with about 1,000 new workers from Canada and the United States.

Tataskweyak Cree Nation had taken a similar approach last weekend, blocking Provincial Road 280 and the north access road to the Keeyask site.

A group of people from Tataskweyak Cree Nation block provincial road 280 into Manitoba Hydro's Keeyask dam site. (Submitted by Nathan Neckoway)

On Monday, however, the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench issued an injunction ordering the blockade be removed and Hydro be granted access to the construction site.

"This injunction further proves the plan we have to safely resume regular work rotations at Keeyask protects both our workers and neighbouring communities from COVID-19," Hydro spokesperson Scott Powell said about the court order in a news release.

"Our plan goes above and beyond the latest public health guidelines and was endorsed by Dr. Roussin, Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer."

Workers have to isolate

During Tuesday's COVID-19 briefing, Roussin said he was ok with the plan because the workers coming from other parts of the province still have to self-isolate for 14 days and receive a negative test before going to the worksite.

"Certainly that is fitting with the public health guidance, and so that's what reduces that risk in our opinion," he said.  

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The injunction is in effect for 10 days. Anyone who continues to impede access to the Keeyask site may be arrested by police and later face charges, the court document says.

First Nations partners issue statement

Yet, the blockade is still standing and it seems communities and First Nations organizations are standing together, according to a media release from Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) which included quotes from the four First Nations partners of the 695-megawatt hydroelectric generating station. 

"Corporate interests do not trump the safety of First Nations peoples in Northern Manitoba," MKO grand chief Garrison Settee said in the statement.

"As leaders, our role is to protect our people, this is our foundational concern. The provincial government deems the Keeyask construction site as essential, critical infrastructure and yet this construction site is not providing any hydro-electric power at this point so it doesn't make sense that it's deemed as essential." 

MKO, Tataskweyak, War Lake First Nation, York Factory First Nation and Fox Lake Cree Nation are pleading to Hydro and the Province of Manitoba to consider the communities' concerns and discuss the shift change.

Members of the Keewatin Tribal Council, in Thompson, Man., as well as the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs have also expressed their support. 

So far, there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 on any Manitoba First Nations, but Tataskweyak Coun. Nathan Neckoway told CBC News last weekend that the community is concerned illness could be brought in with the shift change.

Tataskweyak lacks infrastructure to isolate sick people, with many families living in overcrowded housing, he said.

Pandemic 'could devastate the northern communities'

Dwayne Forman, mayor of the Town of Gillam — which is located less than 40 kilometres southwest of the Fox Lake reserve — said the communities' fears are valid.

"This pandemic, if and when it comes to the north, it could devastate the northern communities," Forman told CBC News.

"We definitely want to do everything we can to keep it out of the north. And that's why we put in place requirements that Keeyask workers are not allowed in our communities."

Hydro workers who arrive in Gillam have to go straight to the Keeyask site, and are not allowed in Gillam or Fox Lake, according to Forman.

He says he isn't worried about workers bringing in the virus.

Hydro's Keeyask project is on track to meet its $8.7-billion budget, Hydro says, though an external review of the project done in 2017 estimated the final cost would be closer to $10.5 billion.

The blockade could cause delays and "tens of millions of dollars of unnecessary costs," and the project could lose workers, Powell said in Tuesday's release.

With files from Sam Samson and Rachel Bergen