Northern Cree communities talk impact of Hydro projects at United Nations

A group representing northern Manitoba Cree communities impacted by Hydro developments spoke at a meeting of the United Nations in New York City earlier this week.

Group says Churchill River Diversion project has devastated environment, economy

A group representing northern Manitoba First Nations impacted by Hydro projects spoke at a meeting of the United Nations in New York City on Monday. (Wa Ni Ska Tan/Facebook)

A group representing northern Manitoba Cree communities impacted by Hydro developments spoke at a meeting of the United Nations in New York City earlier this week.

They wanted to draw international attention to the environmental and economic damage they say Manitoba Hydro projects like the Churchill River Diversion project has caused.

For example, the group says Hydro projects have raised Southern Indian Lake by three metres, flooding 800 square kilometres of forest, destabilized the shoreline and wiped out the lake's commercial fishery.

"I've been there and it's really sad to see what's happening, because they're constantly raising and lowering the water," said Jarvis Brownlie, a professor of history at the University of Manitoba and one of those who spoke at the UN.

"The shores are constantly slumping into the lake, filling it with debris and mud, wearing away islands. So islands that used to be there don't exist anymore."

The group also included Chief Shirley Ducharme from O Pipon-Na-piwin Cree nation, also known as South Indian Lake, Betty Lou Halcrow of Pimicikamak Okimawin, also known as Cross Lake, and Ramona Neckoway of Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, also known as Nelson House.

Ducharme told the story of how her father would come home with a large catch of fish, which would provide the whole family with food. After the flooding depleted the fishery, however, he was a changed person, "no longer coming in proud," Ducharme said in a news release.

International audience

The group spoke at a side event during the annual meeting of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The audience included representatives from Indigenous groups from around the world, as well as other Canadians such as the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, many of whom have dealt with similar issues as a result of hydroelectric projects.

"It's often international audiences are often more sympathetic. You know we have found that there isn't as much openness in Manitoba to hearing about this," said Brownlie.

The group says the Province of Manitoba has allowed Hydro to manipulate the flow of water through the Churchill River Diversion beyond the guidelines set out in the original licence signed in 1973. This is done through the Augmented Flow Program, approved in 1986, which allows maximum flows through the Notigi Control Structure at 15 per cent higher than normal.

Each year, the minister of sustainable development signs an interim licence approving the greater flow rate. The group of First Nations wants the minister to no longer sign those interim licences.

In an email, a spokesperson for Manitoba Hydro denied the diversion scheme is operating outside its original parameters.

"The water regime modifications requested this year (under the 1973 interim Churchill River Diversion Interim Licence) are identical to those approved since 1986. However, the actual implementation is subject to prevailing water conditions," said Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen.

"More important, releases will be managed so that approved water levels along the [Churchill River Diversion] are not violated."

Numerous studies have been done to assess the effects of Hydro's operations, including a Regional Cumulative Effects Assessment completed in 2015. Hydro also meets regularly with representatives from South Indian Lake through the South Indian Lake Environmental Steering Committee, Owen said.

Jarvis Brownlie from the University of Manitoba said the group of First Nations also want to see the full implementation of the Northern Flood Agreement of 1977, which he said is regarded as a modern treaty. It included provisions dealing not only with the operation of the dams themselves, but also outlined how economic benefits from the developments would flow to the communities.

"We're not asking for all the dams to be taken out," Brownlie said. "We're asking for them to be used in a way that's sustainable and that doesn't destroy the economy."