Sometimes it takes protesting against injustice to make progress. This is true in Northern Manitoba, where hydro dams have a habit of damaging Aboriginal lands and cultures, and not enough people seem to care.

On October 16, about 600 protesters from the Pimicikamak nation peacefully took control of the Jenpeg hydro generating station, which lies 525 kilometers North of Winnipeg. They evicted staff, put locks on the staff housing building and raised their traditional flag. The protesters felt “frustrated…cheated…but more than that…deeply, deeply determined.” They asked “that [Manitoba Hydro] and governments apologize, clean up after themselves and learn to share.”

For decades, hydro development has damaged Aboriginal lands, cultures and livelihoods, and projects that have powered Manitoba (and Minnesota) have hurt Pimicikamak. “This [Jenpeg] dam has been great for the south but for us it is a man-made catastrophe,” said Pimicikamak Chief Cathy Merrick. “Hydro needs to clean up the mess it has created in our homeland. Hydro needs to treat us fairly.”

I spent many days and late nights alongside Pimicikamak leaders negotiating with Manitoba Hydro and the government of Manitoba. We were joined by former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci, who served as a facilitator in the dispute.

On November 28, a new Process Agreement was signed, and the protesters took off the locks to Jenpeg. Pimicikamak released this statement to welcome a new start.

The agreement contemplates revenue-sharing for Pimicikamak, more inclusive decision making on hydro development, and commitments to new programming for Pimicikamak, including measures to reduce energy use and costs for Pimicikamak residents. As it happens, much of the new agreement is aimed at implementing a 1977 modern treaty called the Northern Flood Agreement, whose (largely unfulfilled) purpose is to remediate and mitigate Hydro Project impacts and compensate or otherwise benefit Aboriginal parties that are harmed. The Hydro Project now includes about 13 dams and thousands of miles of transmission lines.

The Premier of Manitoba has promised to visit Pimicikamak to deliver an apology for the harms Hydro development has caused. A government minister acknowledged that “mistakes that were made in the past have to be corrected.”

As it stands, a lot of work remains to be done. As Chief Merrick wrote at the outset of the protest:

“Manitoba Hydro has been a great benefit to the province as a whole. Hydro employs 6,500 people, provides inexpensive power, and has brought $5.2 billion into the province from exports of “clean” energy in the past decade.

But for us “hydro” is a bitter word and “clean hydro” is an insult. Our homeland has been ruined, the promises of fair treatment have been ignored and to add insult to injury, literally, our hydro bills are much higher than the provincial average.

Imagine if the once-pristine waters in the lake by your cottage became murky and the shoreline continually washed away. Imagine your favourite childhood camping sites eroded right off the map, your industries undercut, your favourite golf course denuded, your ancestors’ graves dug up, and your place of worship defiled. Imagine if you had to constantly fight for compensation and mitigation, while paying monthly bills to the victimizer.”

OKT will continue to work with Pimicikamak to turn this Process Agreement into substance. We agree with Pimicikamak Chief Merrick, who said: “I know our people will be watching closely for significant, on-the-ground results to be realized as soon as possible.”

By Kate Kempton

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