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Dam(n) development: the production of hydroelectricity on Cree territory.

Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (NCN), located in northern Manitoba, has just become the proud and potential partial owner of a 200-megawatt dam to be constructed in its "resource management area." As an NCN Band member, a strong opponent and an unwilling signatory to the recent Project Development Agreement, I am left with numerous questions and concerns as the hydro industry moves toward damming more of our rivers--this time, with our help.

Hydroelectric "development" in northern Manitoba is not new. Dams have been built, rivers have been diverted, lands have been flooded and communities have been relocated and permanently disrupted. But the latest hydroelectric deal and its ensuing dam are different, so we are told.

Nearly 5,000 megawatts of hydroelectric energy is produced in Manitoba, about eighty per cent on sites located along the Nelson River in northern Manitoba. This translates into big business for the hydro industry and the province. In fact, the most recent industry annual report for the fiscal year ending in 2006 boasts a $420-million profit. A further 5,000 megawatts of electric potential has been identified along the Nelson, Churchill and Burntwood river corridors, indicating that hydro "development" in northern Manitoba is far from over.

"This Time It's Different"

It appears that there has been some recognition by industry regarding the lack of Indigenous participation during a previous round of hydro "development" in northern Manitoba, which may in part have contributed to the newest strategy involving further "development" in the north. Manitoba Hydro, the sole producer and administrator of commercial hydroelectricity in the province, seems to be adopting a different approach in regard to the participation and inclusion of northern Indigenous communities as it contemplates a new wave of hydro activity. This latest round of hydroelectric "development" is different, so we are told.

With community endorsement of the Project Development Agreement, a 1,300-page contract outlining several key provisions related to the project, NCN becomes an affiliate to this dam business, having the "opportunity to own up to 33%" of the proposed Wuskwatim dam. Hydro now has the go-ahead to construct a dam that will be the first since the last massive dam was completed in the last decade. To enable it to purchase its share of the dam, NCN will owe Manitoba Hydro in excess of $84 million, in this manner becoming the beneficiary of the electricity produced in its homeland.

The Wuskwatim deal has been publicized as an economic step forward and quickly developed into a PR campaign suggesting an improved rapport between Manitoba Hydro and "Aboriginal" communities in the region most directly affected by hydroelectric activity. The elected leadership of the day touted the surefire economic windfalls of entering a hydroelectric "development" deal with the utility.

The underlying and all too familiar message embedded within the entire process? Accept this modern way of doing business or waste away and be doomed by your archaic way of life and values. Buy into these kinds of deals or continue to wallow in your indigence.

Wuskwatim seems like a lucrative deal. But is it? We pay more than $84 million into the "development" of a hydroelectric dam in our traditional territory, further endangering an already fragile ecosystem and incurring a debt load that is beyond the resources available to us, and we have the "opportunity" to "own up to 33%" of the dam. Sure, this might work.

Hydro Cash, Missed Opportunities

But the Wuskwatim "partnership" isn't much of a deal once one begins to consider the fine print. Not only is it a bad business deal that will create a huge debt load and undermine our collective, Treaty-based "Aboriginal" rights, it also requires our consent and participation in a process that further destroys our lands and waters. This effectively places us in a position where, in order to "prosper," we have to allow our medicines, burial sites, histories and other significant cultural effects to be destroyed, just so we can repay our "debts" and ensure our place as beneficiaries.


Instead of putting our faith, money and position as Indigenous peoples on Hydro's table, we could have used our Treaty-based rights and position to demand a share of the revenue generated in our territory. In doing so, we could at least have ensured that the utility observe environmentally responsible and sound practices, thereby protecting our medicines, burial sites, histories and other significant cultural effects. Using our legal rights in this manner and demanding a share of the tens of millions that went to the province in water-rental fees, which amounted to more than $100 million last year alone, may have allowed the community to access some of the economic opportunities it needs without placing itself in such a compromising position.

The bait for the Wuskwatim deal encompassed the invariable lure of jobs ... collective betterment ... prosperity ... the usual. The enticing potential presented to NCN is all too familiar. These chronic promises date not only to the more modern hydro-related agreements that were signed with governments and Manitoba Hydro in the seventies, but as far back as the Treaties and even the fur trade. Promises of collective community and economic betterment were already made by Hydro when our lands were flooded in the seventies. These have yet to materialize.

There have been a variety of guarantees and assurances flowing across many bureaucratic tables, which were undoubtedly infused, guided and accepted with such hope and anticipation. Wuskwatim is no different. Many expect prosperous, short-term economic benefits--as if money will somehow cure the effects of colonialism. In this newest round of hydro "development," the impoverished state of our community was used to hook us in. What impoverished community would turn away the lure of jobs and economic prosperity?
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Author:Neckoway, Ramona
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Geographic Code:1CMAN
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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