Order to remove highway blockade presented to First Nations, but chiefs vow not to back down

The chief of a Northern Manitoba First Nation was served with a court order to remove a blockade on Highway 280 outside Split Lake May 20.

The order, granted to Manitoba Hydro by Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Vic Toews after a teleconference hearing on the afternoon of May 18, says that Tataskweyak Cree Nation (TCN), its Chief Doreen Spence, several band councillors or anyone else may not prevent Hydro employees, contractors or agents from getting to the Keeyask generating station construction site or from travelling on Highway 280 or the north and south Keeyask access roads. It also authorizes police to arrest and remove anyone who contravenes the court order.

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Spence received the order from RCMP Manitoba North District Assistant District Officer Insp. Brian Edmonds in front of a couple of hundred people, most wearing face masks to protect against COVID-19, who had gathered at the blockade, including chiefs of the other three Keeyask Cree Nation partners - War Lake First Nation, Fox Lake Cree Nation and York Factory First Nation.

“I’m going to accept it on behalf of my people, my elders, my children, grandchildren and everybody else here, all the other treaty nations,” said Spence, who later ripped up the printed copy of the court order to cheers from the crowd.

“We do want to see a peaceful resolution to this but we do have to abide by the court order,” said Edmonds. “We will continue to have meaningful dialogue between both parties. We just want to try and seek a peaceful resolution so Chief Spence, you have my word on that.”

War Lake First Nation Chief Betsy Kennedy and York Factory First Nation Chief Leory Constant also addressed Edmonds after he served the court order.

“You are here to present this but I will say this  is not going to be the last word I’m going to give you,” said Kennedy. “I’m here  to protect our children and our grandchildren. I’m here to stand beside Chief Spence and her community just as we are. You can take that back to Hydro for what you’re doing to our community, our children, because if this comes to our  community because of the people that are coming in, I hold that to you also.”

“These people aren’t going anywhere,” said Constant.

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.

The gathering in advance of the court order being served was also attended by Fox Lake Cree Nation Chief Billy Beardy, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) Grand Chief Garrison Settee and Churchill-Keewatinook Ask NDP MP Niki Ashton.

“I’m very proud to see the power and the energy of your people and our people because they’re not backing down to Hydro, no, they’re not backing down to anyone because we’re here to stay,” Settee told the crowd. “We’re here to stand up for our lives. We’re  going to stand up for the safety of our people regardless  of what anybody says. Our lives matter, our people are more important than money, our people are more important than the corporation because our lives are sacred, our lives mean something to us and I’m thankful that I’m here to stand with you. I think we’re going to do a lot of great things for our people not only the four Cree nations but North America, Canada and all over. They’re going to hear there’s a powerful four Cree nations in Canada.”

Ashton said that the stand being taken by the Keeyask Cree Nation partners was justified in light of what has happened in La Loche, Saskatchewan.

“I have a very good friend, Georgina Jolibois, who used to be the Member of Parliament for Northern Saskatchewan and she lives in La Loche where they have an outbreak that started from somebody who came back from a work camp in the oil sands in Fort McMurray,” said Ashton. “They know what it does. It already killed two elders in their community. It’s made dozens of people sick and they’re battling it right now. She said very clearly and to convey the message to do everything you can to keep it out and that  means calling on the work camps to be put on temporary  care and maintenance, temporary shutdown, whatever it takes to keep the cases out.”

The Northern Manitoba MP also criticized Manitoba Hydro for not adequately consulting their partner First Nations about their plan to return to full staff levels.

“We have to be included,” said Spence. “This affects us. It’s our lives. We’re the ones that are the most impacted. We’re 47 kilometres away from Keeyask. We have our own members working there. We have our own people that want to continue to work there but we also have to look at the community, the health and safety because with Hydro, workers go there daily.”

Manitoba Hydro media relations officer Bruce Owen told the Thompson Citizen May 21 that the company has offered to set up a phone call between CEO Jay Grewal and the chiefs of the four Keeyask partner First Nations so she could hear firsthand their perspectives and concerns about the current pandemic plans and the rotation of Keeyask staff. One chief has responded to the invitation saying they would prefer a face-to-face meeting. Hydro has temporarily suspended the shift change, apart from some essential staff needed to maintain the safety of the site while the company works to resolve the blockades. About 300 staff remained onsite on Thursday, some of whom have been there for more than eight weeks. Some of the staff who remained behind when normal operations were scaled back in late March have already left the site.

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.

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.

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.” 

The return of Keeyask to full operations was also addressed in the Manitoba Legislature by Thompson MLA Danielle Adams.

Unfortunately even precautions put forward are based on the honour system that out-of-province workers self-isolate before coming north,” said Adams. “Many of these contractors are coming from Quebec and will have to fly out of Montreal, which has had major outbreaks. What will happen if travellers get sick while en route to Keeyask?”

Amnesty International also weighed in on Manitoba Hydro’s plan to say that 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.”

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.

© Copyright Thompson Citizen

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