Manitoba Metis Federation plans to take province to court over cancelled Hydro agreement

The Manitoba Metis Federation is going to court over the cancellation of an agreement with Manitoba Hydro.

Premier Brian Pallister 'has no right to lead this province,' says federation president David Chartrand

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

The Manitoba Metis Federation says it will go to court over a deal the federation made with Manitoba Hydro to approve future projects, including a transmission line to the U.S. border.

The MMF claims the provincial government has breached a foundational deal it negotiated and signed in 2014, called the Turning the Page Agreement.

A second agreement that would have sent funds from Manitoba Hydro to the MMF was quashed by the government last week, after which nine of 10 members of Hydro's board of directors resigned.

The federation announced the legal action at a news conference Wednesday morning, where president David Chartrand said Premier Brian Pallister should be dumped as the leader of the province.

"It is clear that the premier is so out of touch with these new legal realities he has no right to lead this province," he said.

Chartrand said the MMF has no issues with the Progressive Conservative MLAs or cabinet ministers — only with Pallister.

"To Manitobans, I apologize we have to fight this premier," Chartrand told reporters, calling Pallister a "king," and adding there are "no kings in this province."

"The province has not yet been served with documents starting court proceedings," Crown services minister Cliff Cullen said in an emailed statement Wednesday.

"Once that happens, the province will review in order to determine its position. The Manitoba government will continue to stand up for the rights and best interests of all Manitobans, today and into the future."

'Dragging us to the courts'

The second deal would have seen Manitoba Hydro pay the MMF $67.5 million over several decades.

In return the MMF would not oppose projects the Crown corporation would build, including a transmission line it needs to deliver electricity to Minnesota.

"So now [Pallister is] going to be dragging us to the courts," Chartrand said.

"He's going to be dragging through every function and every development that happens in Crown lands — Lake St. Martin, for example. We weren't consulted once. Two years we have been trying to sit down on the Lake St. Martin diversion project."

The province plans to cut two outlet channels on Lake St. Martin and Lake Manitoba to mitigate flood risks. Last year, the premier promised upcoming consultations on how to proceed would be the "most comprehensive, thorough and robust Crown and Indigenous communities consultations in the history of Manitoba."

One of the lawyers representing the MMF says the "honour of the Crown" is at issue after the government killed the federation's agreement with Hydro, but because it was negotiated between the MMF and Hydro in good faith, it still has the legal standing of a contract.

"We think the July 2017 agreement is still in place. It is legally enforceable and it has not been breached yet. The MMF has relied on that and follow through on it. We have not heard otherwise on it," said Jason Madden.

The ​Métis have won some significant court battles, but at least one legal scholar says there are several grey areas, including the obligation for compensation to the Métis.

"None of those [previous court] decisions directs the payment of financial compensation, but in the case of an infringement of a right, financial compensation is sometimes appropriate," University of Saskatchewan law professor Dwight Newman told CBC News earlier this week.

Battle over resignations

The follow-up $67-million agreement with the MMF was approved by the Hydro's board following recommendations by the senior management at the utility, but the deal was killed by Pallister last week in the midst of a public battle with the majority of Hydro's board.

The board forwarded the agreement to the Progressive Conservative government last summer. 

Pallister claims an impasse over the agreement with the Metis Federation was the reason for the resignation of nine board members last Wednesday. He told reporters last week the agreement "has implications for much more than Manitoba Hydro when you start making payments to certain groups to not participate, and processes and things like that," calling it "persuasion money."

However, former Hydro board chair Sandy Riley has repeatedly said this is not the case.

Riley says he and his board members quit despite repeated attempts to meet with Pallister over the precarious financial situation at Hydro.

Chartrand previously said words such as "persuasion" or "hush money" in reference to payments to the MMF are offensive and "race baiting."

At the MMF press conference Wednesday, Chartrand said Pallister was caught off guard by the board's resignation and made a miscalculation by linking the MMF agreement with the explanation for the board members' departure.

"He, I didn't think, ever expected this to happen from the board of Hydro. He didn't know how to respond," Chartrand said.

"He made a major error, a political error, here and he needed something else. He needed something else to send a message — 'these guys are the bad guys.' I'm not the bad guy."

'Buck stops' with Pallister: farmer

Jurgen Kohler — a farmer from Brunkild, Man., 45 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg — said Pallister's argument that the Hydro board members resigned because of his refusal to approve the MMF agreement proves that the corporation is controlled by politicians.

Kohler and about 100 other landowners have been trying to negotiate with Hydro for five years over expropriations for the Bipole III transmission line. Last summer, when he complained to then-Crown services minister Ron Schuler, he was told Hydro was independent.

Quashing the deal with the MMF contradicts that, he said.

"It clearly shows you that the buck stops with Brian Pallister because you can't tell me that it takes from July 2017 until last week to decide to object. Like, there is some disconnect here in the stories," he said.

Kohler and other landowners have sought to negotiate with Manitoba Hydro through legal representation from the Canadian Association of Energy and Pipeline Landowner Associations, but he says Hydro has refused to meet with their legal representatives.

"Our rights have been stripped to no end and we've lost a lot of landowners in our group because they've been targeted by Hydro," he said.