Minister rejects Métis federation claims they weren't consulted on projects

Manitoba Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler fired back at the Manitoba Métis Federation one day after it announced plans to take the provincial government to court over a cancelled agreement with Manitoba Hydro.

MMF announced plans to take province to court over cancelled $67.5M agreement with Manitoba Hydro

Manitoba Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler held a news conference Thursday to address claims made by the Manitoba Métis Federation after it announced plans to take the province to court over a cancelled $67.5M deal with Manitoba Hydro related to the Manitoba-Minnesota Transmission Project. (Cliff Simpson/CBC)

Manitoba Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler fired back at the Manitoba Métis Federation one day after it announced plans to take the provincial government to court over a cancelled agreement with Manitoba Hydro.

On Thursday, Schuler said he doesn't want to "prejudge" the legal process, but he wanted to respond to claims made by MMF president David Chartrand after their deal with Manitoba Hydro — $67.5 million over 50 years, in exchange for not opposing future transmission projects — was scrapped by the province. 

"This payment is not normal practice as they claim. 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.

Although the province will negotiate with landowners when they are impacted, it doesn't offer them money in order for them to not have a say in the process, Schuler said.

"With landowners there's a process that they go through. They're allowed to come forward and have a say. The agreement that is signed with the Manitoba Métis Federation basically is an agreement that they won't have a say."

Premier Brian Pallister has called the payment "persuasion money" and argued it takes away the Métis right to participate in the process.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Chartrand said the province is forcing the MMF to go to court by violating a 2014 agreement called Turning the Page, as well as failing to properly consult them on the Manitoba-Minnesota Transmission Project and the Lake Manitoba diversion channel.

Discussions between the province and the MMF on the Lake Manitoba project have gone on for years, Schuler said, and the province signed a consultation agreement with the MMF in November that included funding to allow the federation to participate in the process.

MMF lawyer Jason Madden said that consultation agreement didn't allow for a traditional land use study to assess the effects of the project on Métis rights in the area, and that the province has issued contracts for the work without engaging the MMF.

"The Province of Manitoba has an impoverished view of what the duty to consult actually requires," Madden said. "Simply having meetings where Indigenous groups can blow off steam or say we need more information or we need to understand the impacts of the project, that is not meaningful consultation."

MMF president David Chartrand, centre, and lawyer Jason Madden, second from left, spoke at a news conference on Wednesday. (Bert Savard/CBC)

Schuler's claim that the agreement with the MMF "is not normal" shows how little he and others in the government understand it, Madden said.

Rather than precluding Métis involvement in the regulatory process, the agreement set out a process through which Métis rights would be taken into account and allows them to make recommendation on environmental monitoring and conditions on the licence, Madden said.

"It's not that people are giving up rights in any way, shape or form. It's essentially saying there's going to be impacts on these rights and here's the process of how we're going to address them," he said.

Landowners seek to suspend hearings

Earlier this week, a coalition of southeast Manitoba landowners filed an application with the National Energy Board to suspend upcoming hearings on the Manitoba-Minnesota Transmission Project, which is the last leg of a transmission line bringing electricity from northern generating stations through the Bipole III line and across the U.S. border.

Hearings on the project are scheduled for June, but the Southeast Stakeholders Coalition wants the hearings put on hold until it's clear whether the province wants to continue with the project.

The coalition also said the province should hold off any more licensing approvals on the MMTP until it investigates payments Hydro has made to the MMF and individual property owners to reduce opposition.

Schuler said it's too late to turn back now.

"We have a project and we believe that that project, which we inherited, for a lot of economic reasons should proceed," he said. "These are important projects. They have a lot of money attached to them, and probably best we proceed with them, even as a government that we might be uncomfortable with them."

'Feeling like a very small fish in a very large pond': Southern Manitoba farmers trying to keep transmission line out of their backyards

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The Manitoba-Minnesota Transmission Project has become a flashpoint after Premier Brian Pallister quashed Hydro deal with the Manitoba Metis Federation to reduce opposition to this and future projects. Farmers are banding together to say: what about us?

Madden called the application a "stunt" and said it shows the harm that the premier's comments have caused.

"It's unfortunate that it's repeating some of the offensive language coming from the premier around hush payments, special interest groups, and the like in the application to attempt to delay the hearing process for these landowners' own personal interests."

Kevin Toyne, a lawyer for the coalition, said they oppose the project and want to see the route moved farther east to minimize the impacts on communities like Taché and La Broquerie.