Manitoba Hydro has obtained a court injunction ordering Tataskweyak Cree Nation (TCN) to remove blockades on Highway 280 preventing road access to the Crown corporation’s Keeyask generating station construction site.
The injunction, granted by Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Vic Toews after a teleconference hearing on the afternoon of May 18 during which no representative appeared for the defendants, is in effect for 10 days and says that TCN, its Chief Doreen Spence, several band councillors and other people may not prevent Hydro employees, contractors or agents from getting to the Keeyask site or travelling on roads including Highway 280, and the north and south access roads. It also authorizes police to arrest and remove anyone who contravenes the court order.
“This injunction further proves the plan we have to safely resume regular work rotations at Keeyask protects both our workers and neighbouring communities from COVID-19,” said Manitoba Hydro’s corporate communications director Scott Powell in a May 19 news release. “Our plan goes above and beyond the latest public health guidelines and was endorsed by Dr. Roussin, Manitoba’s Chief Provincial Public Health Officer.”
TCN blockaded the highway May 15 in an effort to keep the novel coronavirus out of the area as Manitoba Hydro tries to return staffing levels at the Keeyask generating station construction camp back to pre-pandemic levels.
Numerous Northern Manitoba First Nation leaders, including the four regional partners in the Keeyask project, responded to Manitoba Hydro’s move to get blockades taken down May 19.
“Other jurisdictions have placed resource development projects on hold until the risk of COVID-19 passes,” said Spence in a press release. “We are urging the province of Manitoba to place this construction site into ‘care and maintenance mode.’ First Nations have undertaken many actions to restrict the transmission of COVID-19, including closing our borders to ensure our communities are safe. We urge the province to do their utmost to protect our people as well.”
War Lake First Nation Chief Betsy Kennedy said bringing over 1,000 people into Northern Manitoba is inconsistent with provincial public health orders.
“We are told that the workers coming to Northern Manitoba are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in their home province prior to travel,” Kennedy said. “How do we know these people are truly self-isolating? There is no way we can actually know this as Manitoba Hydro has not shared information on how self-isolation is being monitored, if at all. Also, workers from other provinces will be tested for COVID-19 upon arriving in Winnipeg and, if negative, will be allowed to immediately travel north to start working. If a worker was infected during travel to Winnipeg, the COVID-19 test is not sufficiently sensitive to identify infection after such a short incubation period. It is noteworthy that, unlike workers from other provinces, all Manitobans returning from out of province must isolate here for 14 days following travel.”
York Factory First Nation Chief Leroy Constant said Manitoba wasn’t treating his First Nation or War Lake, TCN and Fox Lake Cree Nation like partners.
“We have been discussing these issues for weeks, but it seems that our partners at Manitoba Hydro are not interested in hearing our concerns,” Constant said. “If Manitoba Hydro was to reduce the number of people working at the project while we come to terms with this pandemic, it would show respect for the concerns we have for our people’s health and wellness.”
Fox Lake Cree Nation Chief Billy Beardy said Manitoba Hydro should meet with the First Nations in the area of the new dam.
“This is a flagrant violation of how they should be carrying out a mutually respectful and cooperative partnership. We absolutely should be working together in the best interests of the people who call Northern Manitoba home since time immemorial.”
Keewatin Tribal Council (KTC) chairperson and Barren Lands First Nation Chief John Clarke expressed his support for TCN, War Lake, Fox Lake and York Factory alongside KTC vice-chair and Shamattawa First Nation Chief Eric Redhead.
“The hard work of all Manitobans, especially our communities in our region, to reduce the spread of the pandemic will be for naught should new cases spark up once the out of province workers arrive at the Keeyask work site,” said Clarke in a press release. “It is my opinion that all Manitobans should be very concerned that so little attention is given to the leaders of the four Cree Nations in their demand to have the project suspended until such time their fears and concerns have been thoroughly addressed.”
Redhead said there appear to be different standards for Manitoba citizens and resource extraction companies.
“On the one hand, all citizens are told to stay home and respect social distancing orders and on the other, mining and hydro developments are allowed to place our health and safety at risk,” said Redhead. “This is not acceptable. Most of those who placate industry by bending rules and circumventing public health orders do not reside in the north.”
Manitoba public health issued a ban on non-essential travel to Northern Manitoba April 17, but it does not include people travelling to the region for employment.
“First Nations in Northern Manitoba are extremely concerned with the plans Manitoba Hydro has to bring in people from across Canada and the United States to the Keeyask construction site in a few days from now,” said MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee. “I am disappointed that despite multiple and ongoing calls for action, Manitoba Hydro continues to ignore the concerns expressed by First Nations. First Nations leaders have worked tirelessly to keep the COVID-19 virus out of the North in an aim to protect babies, children, youth, adults, and elders. We are calling on Manitoba Hydro to do the same.”
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) Grand Chief Arlen Dumas also expressed solidarity with TCN, War Lake, York Factory and Fox Lake on behalf of the organization.
“All Manitobans should be alarmed that this project will move forward with bringing in workers from outside our province and even some from the United States, despite the state of emergencies the province and First Nations have instituted,” said Dumas. “All Manitobans have made great personal and professional sacrifices so that we all could collectively protect the health of our region as best as we could. Now Manitoba Hydro circumvents all of our collective efforts for their own financial gain. They will bring up to 1,200 people, the majority from out of province and around the world, right into the our current COVID-19 free North and, in turn, expose our most threatened and vulnerable populations. When the outbreak happens in the North, where will Manitoba Hydro be?”
Manitoba Hydro’s plan to return to regular rotations at Keeyask beginning approximately May 19, allows workers who live in Manitoba to report for work as long as they have not travelled outside the province within 14 days of their first shift. Workers coming from outside the province must self-isolate and monitor themselves for symptoms for 14 days in their home province or Manitoba or a combination of both and be screened and tested for COVID-19 on the day they travel to Keeyask. Those from outside the country must self-isolate for 14 days after arriving in Manitoba and be tested for COVID-19 on the day they travel to Keeyask. Employees from Northern Manitoba who travel to the site in their own vehicles must pass a screening questionnaire to assess their risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus before driving to the project site. On arrival, they will be shuttled by their employer to the main camp and must proceed directly to medical services to have a test sample taken. They must isolate themselves in a dorm room and wait to receive a negative test result back from Winnipeg before leaving isolation. Workers who do not meet these requirements will be refused the ability to return to work at Keeyask.
More than 500 employees and contractors have been onsite since staffing levels were reduced around March 21 and Hydro says they need to rotate new staff in for those workers’ well being.
“A blockade shutting down construction on the project will cause delays and cause tens of millions of dollars of unnecessary costs for our customers, plus the loss of employment for hundreds of workers,” says Powell.
The 695-megawatt Keeyask generating station is currently tracking to meet its $8.7 billion budget and to have the first unit producing power by this October, Manitoba Hydro says.