MP says increasing workforce at Hydro’s Keeyask dam construction site poses risk to First Nations

Northern Manitoba’s Member of Parliament says Manitoba Hydro’s plan to return the workforce at its Keeyask generating station back to its pre-pandemic levels could put northern First Nations at risk from COVID-19.

Churchill-Keewatinook Ask NDP MP Niki Ashton wrote a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau May 12, asking him to intervene on behalf of four First Nations who have expressed concerns with Hydro’s plan to build the Keeyask workforce back up to about 1,200 people, some from other provinces.

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First Nations are particularly concerned they are at risk as a result of the continued operation of work camps in their territories, which include workers from their communities,” wrote Ashton. “Most of the contractors arriving at Keeyask would be arriving from jurisdictions that have far more cases of COVID-19 than Manitoba. They would also be coming to our northern region which is under a travel ban on non-essential travel. Our region is extremely vulnerable. We cannot afford to see the virus spread in Northern Manitoba at a time when we need to be doing everything we can to remain vigilant.”

The Winnipeg Free Press reported May 8 that a Manitoba Hydro memo to workers at the Keeyask site said the Crown corporation plans to return to standard work rotations around May 19. 

Tataskweyak Cree Nation, York Factory First Nation, War Lake First Nation and Fox Lake Cree Nation wrote to Manitoba Hydro CEO Jay Grewal to say that they were not consulted until after Hydro employees were told about the plan and the Northern Regional Health Authority (NRHA) had approved it.

We are currently at risk of suffering potentially devastating consequences, resulting from our lack of inclusion in the development of the pandemic response," said the letter. “It has become increasingly apparent that our reasonable concerns are not being considered or addressed."

Staffing levels at the Keeyask work camp were reduced to about 700 workers in late March in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic and the workers who voluntarily remained were required to stay at the site, except in the case of emergencies. Now, the company plans to return to the practice of bringing workers in for three weeks before they return home for a week off. Hydro’s memo to employees said anyone coming from outside Manitoba would have to self-isolate in a Winnipeg hotel for a week and that anyone flying on a charter plane will have to test negative for COVID-19 and wear a mask. Hydro’s plan to ramp back up does not include on-site testing, the Free Press reported.

A Hydro spokesperson told the Free Press that the company consulted with health authorities about their plan. The company was allowed to reopen the Keeyask cafeteria and gym in April after being granted an exemption by the NRHA.

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