Manitoba

Key exec takes step back from Hydro's Keeyask board as First Nation calls for inquiry over abuse allegations

York Factory First Nation is demanding an inquiry into the alleged racism, discrimination and violence at the hands of the Manitoba Hydro workers that it says is still occurring.

Racism, discrimination, harassment and sexual violence still happening during Keeyask project, chief alleges

War Lake First Nation Chief Betsy Kennedy, York Factory First Nation Chief Leroy Constant and York Factory Coun. Evelyn Beardy at a press conference Friday, where the communities asked the province to launch a formal inquiry into the conduct of Manitoba Hydro workers past and present. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Manitoba Hydro says a key executive voluntarily resigned as board chair of the Keeyask Hydropower Limited Partnership on Thursday evening, just before a northern Manitoba First Nation publicly called for his removal and a provincial inquiry into alleged racism, discrimination and violence at the hands of the Manitoba Hydro workers.

The announcement of Lorne Midford's resignation as KHLP board chair came Friday afternoon, just after a press conference held by York Factory First Nation.

He was accused at the Friday morning news conference of belittling a female board member from York Factory for a statement the community gave to the media.

Later in the afternoon, Manitoba Hydro told CBC News that Midford had resigned as board chair on Thursday.

He remains a vice-president with the company, responsible for all of Hydro's generating stations in Manitoba. 

And he remains president and a board member of KHLP, Hydro clarified on Sept. 10. 

This is in our own territories, our own traditional areas, where we're subject to racism.- York Factory Chief Leroy Constant

York Factory's call for a provincial inquiry follows allegations arising from last month's damning report from the Clean Environment Commission.

York Factory Chief Leroy Constant said the recent media coverage and dialogue resulting from the report have triggered traumatic memories, especially for women. 

"Our people have experienced atrocities," he said Friday during a media conference at the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak office in Winnipeg.

First Nation calls for inquiry over abuse allegations

4 years ago
Duration 2:06
York Factory First Nation is demanding an inquiry into allegations of racism, discrimination and sexual violence at the hands of Manitoba Hydro employees.

That report exposed long-standing claims of sexual abuse and discrimination during the construction of hydroelectric projects in northern Manitoba that date back decades.

York Factory First Nation, about 700 kilometres north of Winnipeg, is the first community to publicly ask the provincial government to undertake an inquiry. That call is supported by War Lake First Nation, whose chief, Betsy Kennedy, also attended Friday's press conference.

Constant said he expects other First Nation communities to back their request.

Evelyn Beardy, a band councillor at York Factory First Nation, wants the inquiry to begin immediately.

"We need to make sure that all our employees are safe out there, but specifically our Indigenous women. They can't continue to be sexually exploited like they have been."

The province said in a statement that Manitoba Minister of Indigenous and Northern Relations Eileen Clarke would visit the affected communities.

Racism still happening

Constant said the issues, which he said the community has tried to bring up for years to no avail, go back to the late 1950s.

"Racism, discrimination, harassment and sexual violence continue today in the current Keeyask project."

In particular, he said community members still hear derogatory language directed at them.

"There's numerous names that I won't refer to that our people have been subject to, and it has to stop," he said. "This is in our own territories, our own traditional areas, where we're subject to racism."

A statement from York Factory alleged sexual assaults were perpetrated by Hydro workers assigned to the Keeyask project, which has been under construction since 2014. 

In a statement emailed to CBC News Thursday, the RCMP said they have received no reports of sexual assault during that time span.

"We have recently held discussions with [York Factory First Nation] leadership and assured them that any allegation of sexual assault reported to police will be fully investigated," the RCMP statement said, adding that any sexual assault victim who does not want to make a formal complaint can report the assault anonymously through Klinic Community Health Center.

Accusatory phone call

Constant said a complaint had been filed with Hydro Thursday, asking for Midford to be removed from his post as KHLP board chair for alleged harassment and inappropriate behaviour.

The First Nation was apparently not informed before Friday's press conference that Midford had already resigned.

Board member Louisa Constant, who represents York Factory on the board, alleges she received an angry phone call from Midford, who she says questioned York Factory's commitment to working with the KHLP board, the media release said.

He was reportedly referring to a Sept. 1 report in the Winnipeg Free Press in which the community alleged that workers from the Keeyask generating station construction site have sexually assaulted women, used racial slurs and brought cocaine to the community. 

The chief said Midford's phone call was a personal attack on York Factory's representative on the board.

"This sort of behaviour cannot be condoned, particularly in the context of the history of violence against Indigenous women."

Manitoba Hydro said it would conduct an independent investigation to determine if the complaint has merit.

Constant also voiced his support Friday for York Factory First Nation member Martina Saunders, the former vice-president of KLHP's board, who publicly blasted the board this week for systemic racism and discrimination that she said prompted her to resign in 2017.

She said she approached the Manitoba Human Rights Commission in 2017 and is still speaking with them today about her complaint against Hydro.


With files from Marianne Klowak

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story stated Midford resigned from the KHLP board. In fact, he resigned as board chair and remains on the board.
    Sep 10, 2018 7:44 PM CT

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ian Froese

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Ian Froese covers provincial politics and its impact for CBC Manitoba. He previously reported on a bit of everything for newspapers. You can reach him at ian.froese@cbc.ca.

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