Wuskwatim: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

What does Wuskwatim, the new, $1-billion electricity-generating station proposed for the Burntwood River, mean for the Cree in whose territory it will rise? While it will create an important economic asset, history tells us that it can at best be a mixed blessing.

Long-awaited hearings on the project by Manitoba’s Clean Environment Commission are underway. Energy Minister Tim Sales admits that past hydro-electric development in the Province occurred “without recognition of the consequences” for aboriginals. A staggering array of environmental activists, public interest and native groups are countering submissions by key proponents of the project, Manitoba Hydro and the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation of Nelson House.

First, the good side. Wuskwatim offers an excellent opportunity for employment, not only during the construction phase, but for many years after. Once it’s built, people still need to operate and maintain the dam, and now is the time to train the indigenous Cree for these long-term positions.

Businesses will spring up to support all the new activity. The influx of people may require a new garage, a larger grocery store, a hardware store and taxi and bus services. Past experience shows that enterprises run directly by First Nations most often do not succeed. Band members with entrepreneurial ambitions do need the full support of the band’s economic development officials. But their business plans must anticipate conditions post-construction, when the amount of people will dramatically decrease. The band council itself should stick to running the band.

If properly handled, Wuskwatim can therefore give the Nisichawayasihk a much-needed shot in the arm. But let’s be honest about the negative economic impacts. The MCEC hearings at times turned testy as NCN Chief Jerry Primrose called some of the dam’s opponents “economic terrorists.” But many of their objections ring true. Manitoba Hydro tends to underplay the downside, a strategy that ignores the cataclysmic effects on traditional Cree industries like hunting, trapping and fishing.

I grew up in Gillam, Manitoba, the site of the Kettle generating station. Prior to the construction of this massive dam, one could hear the roar of the mighty Nelson two miles away from the small railway community of 350 people. Local fishermen and guides traveled by train to Cash Lake with their boats, motors and supplies, then portaged a mile through the bush to a small creek that carried them to the Butnaue River, and from there to its mouth at the Nelson, the best area for gill-netting and sport fishing. Pickerel and big fish like sturgeon were in abundance. Later a road made for easier access.

I left Gillam, only to return many years after Kettle was built. I set out to travel the 11 miles to my old fishing grounds, but at the four-mile mark it ended. A lake now extended as far as one could see, with obvious devastation. Debris floated in the water, and the tops of long dead trees poked out of the lake. The severe impacts of such flooding are well known to the people in affected areas. It wipes out old industries and creates new hazards, including fluctuating water levels, rocks that can damage boats and outboard motors and, worst of all, drownings.

Greg McIvor of Wabowden, Manitoba, has been trapping in the area of the proposed Wuskwatim site for 34 years. He feels that not all the research and information provided by Manitoba Hydro about such impacts are accurate. “We have seen the direct results on our trapline of fluctuating water levels that are not as naturally occurring as Manitoba Hydro would have us believe,” states McIvor. He cites video footage shot by Manitoba Hydro and several photos of the area that reveal suspicious fluctuations and flooding in recent years.

“You never see as many animals in the area as the elders say used to be around here,” says McIvor. “When the water levels rise, they can’t cross certain areas and when water levels are down waterfowl and fish are affected.” He’s also concerned about effects outside the Nelson House area: “I fear not all has been done to see if there will be environmental impacts in the Grassy River system. Hydro is saying flat out that this area is not going to be affected by Wuskwatim. I believe it will and I’ve seen the evidence gathered by Manitoba Hydro that supports this theory.” These fears are real and should not be lightly dismissed.

Nor should the potential social impacts, which can be ugly. Will the people of Nelson House be ready to handle what a Hydro project brings with it? Our quiet railroad town of Gillam more than doubled in size almost overnight, with a camp close by that housed 5,000 construction workers from across Canada. Required to work 90 days in before getting a week out, many would venture into town to look for excitement. Many locals, young men and women overwhelmed by all the new attention, partied with them and shared the readily available drugs these workers brought in. Many men, even young ones like my 15-year-old friends, were challenged to fights. Battle we did, and grew up too fast in that environment. While Gillam is now a Hydro town, things do not have to be the same in Nelson House. But we should be realistic about the dangers.

On balance, NCN’s partnership with Manitoba Hydro on this deal could benefit the community of Nelson House for many years to come. But instead of turning themselves into mere cheerleaders, Chief Primrose and his colleagues must heed these warnings and address them promptly before the project starts. If they overlook these concerns, they are forgetting that they were elected to look after the best interests of their people.

They also should remember that Manitoba Hydro still has outstanding issues in regards to flood settlements with Cross Lake and South Indian Lake. In the early ’70s, with little consideration for the rights of the Cree, the utility dispossessed them, flooded the waters and lands that were their transportation routes and all but wiped out a hunting culture and economy that had sustained them since time immemorial. They have been waiting for a settlement with the Manitoba Hydro, the Province of Manitoba and the federal Government since 1975. That’s simply unacceptable.

The challenge for Jerry Primrose and the people of Nelson House is to make Wuskwatim happen with a minimum of such grief.