Four First Nations agree to remove blockades near Keeyask after meeting with Manitoba Hydro CEO

The four First Nations who are partners with Manitoba Hydro in the Keeyask generating station construction project have agreed to remove blockades preventing road access to the site after a May 23 teleconference with the Crown corporation’s CEO.

Tataskweyak Cree Nation (TCN), Fox Lake Cree Nation (FLCN), The chiefs of War Lake First Nation (WLFN) and York Factory First Nation (YFFN) agreed to remove blockades that have been in place since as far back as May 15, Manitoba Hydro agreed to lift their injunction against TCN Chief Doreen Spence and there are plans for an in-person meeting, COVID-19 planning exercises with the communities and the resumption of the shift change at Keeyask that was suspended last week, said news releases from Manitoba Hydro and from Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), a political advocacy organization that represents the four involved First Nations and about 20 more throughout Northern Manitoba. There is also a plan for a face-to-face meeting between Hydro CEO Jay Grewal and the four First Nations’ chiefs.

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“We have asked Manitoba Hydro to work with us in a better way to move forward with the project,” said Spence in the news release. “First Nations, like other Manitobans, have made many sacrifices to restrict the transmission of COVID-19. While we absolutely want our economies to open up and succeed, we are ultimately most concerned about the well-being and health of our citizens during this uncertain period. We want to keep everyone safe from this virus. We look forward to working as full partners throughout the completion and operation of this project.”

Other chiefs said the situation would not have developed the way it did if Hydro had been more open with them from the beginning.

“The plan of bringing in up to 1,200 people from outside of our region, while a travel ban is in place, is an astounding idea,” said WLFN Chief Betsy Kennedy. “The Cree partners of the Keeyask project must have a seat at the table when it comes to making decisions that will have an impact on the health of our citizens. War Lake looks forward to being fully informed and in agreement with the plans for next steps for constructing the Keeyask Generation Station.”

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.

“If Manitoba Hydro had fully engaged with its Cree partners from the beginning, this situation would not have happened,” said YFFN Chief Leroy Constant. “We are living in a pandemic and we know what is best for our communities. York Factory looks forward to working with Manitoba Hydro in a more productive and meaningful way.”

FLCN Chief Billy Beardy said he hopes for a better relationship with Manitoba Hydro going forward.

“Manitoba Hydro must work with First Nations for the best interests of the health and well-being of the people in Northern Manitoba,” Beardy.

“I’m happy we were able to have an open and frank discussion with our partners,” Grewal said. “We gained a better understanding of their perspectives and concerns regarding the shift change for the Keeyask project and its pandemic plan. Our objective has always been to ensure the safety of not only our workers at Keeyask, but also that of the surrounding communities.”

Manitoba Hydro said May 21 it was postponing plans to return Keeyask to a full complement of staff. Manitoba Hydro media relations officer Bruce Owen told the Thompson Citizen that the company had temporarily suspended the shift change, originally planned to begin around May 19, apart from some essential staff needed to maintain the safety of the site, while working to resolve the blockades. About 300 staff remained onsite that day, some of whom had been there for more than eight weeks since operations were scaled back in late March in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Some of the staff who remained behind when normal operations were scaled back in late March had already left the site by last Thursday.

Now that an agreement has been reached, regular shipments of materials and supplies to the city will resume as soon as possible, says Manitoba Hydro, as will a gradual increase in the number of workers at the site. About 1,000 workers will return to continue construction over the coming weeks, all of whom will be required to test negative for COVID-19 before resuming work. 

RCMP served Spence with a court injunction May 20 to remove the blockade on Highway 280 or face possible arrest. She accepted it, then ripped it up in front of hundreds of onlookers who had gathered at the blockade site to show solidarity with the actions of those who set up the blockade.

The blockade drew the attention of Manitoba politicians as well as of organizations like Amnesty International, which said the Crown corporation should respect the rights of First Nations in the area near the new dam.

Indigenous communities in Northern Manitoba are rightfully occupying and defending lands to which they still hold inherent title,” said Amnesty International Canada Indigenous rights campaign advisor Anna Collins in a May 20 news release. “Without question, these communities have an inherent responsibility and right to control access into their territories to protect their communities from COVID-19 and prevent unsustainable pressure on healthcare systems in rural and remote areas. Governments should be applauding and actively supporting these efforts, not ignoring the concerns of First Nations and criminalizing community elders and leaders.”

MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee, who was present when RCMP delivered to injunction to Spence, said in Sunday’s news release that he was proud of the chiefs for taking action to protect their communities, which could be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 spreading if it were to infect some of their residents, due to crowded housing and lack of access to sufficient medical care.

“As leaders, we are the protectors of our communities,” Settee said. “I commend the chief and councillors for stepping up in a major way to protect their people. I am proud to stand with them. I also commend the CEO of Manitoba Hydro for making it a priority to work directly with First Nations leaders. I urge governments and corporations to do their due diligence when it comes to engaging with the First Nations leaders throughout Canada on resource development and other projects. If we are to move forward in the spirit of reconciliation, we absolutely must be full partners at the table.”

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.

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