Manitoba Cree Tribe Calls Foul on Utility

As they plug in their toasters or watch a lightbulb flicker to life, most Midwesterners are blissfully unaware of a battle raging at the source of their electricity, far away in Canada. But thanks to the efforts of a small Cree tribe in northern Manitoba, that could change. The Cross Lake Crees are enlisting the support of environmentalists and human rights organizations in their fight against Manitoba Hydro, a utility company they claim has destroyed their livelihoods and environment. They’ve taken their cause to the streets of Minneapolis, rallying at the offices of Northern States Power Co. (NSP)–which buys much of Manitoba Hydro’s electricity–and holding informational meetings with anyone who will listen. The campaign has one goal: to turn NSP away from Manitoba Hydro’s cheap power and force the Canadian utility to agree to an acceptable compensation package for the tribe.

“It has turned our way of life upside down here,” says Nelson Miller, a band councillor with the Cross Lake First Nation, a troubled aboriginal community nestled deep in the forests of northern Manitoba, about 300 miles north of Winnipeg. Their struggle with Manitoba Hydro began in the 1970s, when the construction of three dams on the Nelson River caused widespread flooding. The dams, which generate about 80 percent of Manitoba Hydro’s power, displaced whole communities and irreparably damaged traditional hunting and fishing grounds. In 1977, five native communities, including Cross Lake, signed the Northern Flood Agreement (NFA) with the Canadian government, Manitoba’s provincial government, and Manitoba Hydro for compensation. Since then, all but Cross Lake have taken lump sum payouts. The band wants the NFA signers to live up to the broad terms of the agreement, which promised greater compensation for present and future generations to help wipe out numbing unemployment and poverty.

As in many aboriginal communities, most of the band’s 4,000 reserve residents cannot find work; alcohol, drug abuse, and suicide are rampant. Since 1976, 22 people on the reserve have taken their own lives, twice the national average. “These people are living with so much uncertainty it’s got to take a toll on their mental health,” says Ann Stewart, who was hired by the band to serve as its U.S. information officer. She has been leading the charge in the United States, meeting with environmental, human rights, faith, and aboriginal groups in the hopes of winning their support and, in turn, creating a powerful lobby to force NSP to turn its back on Manitoba Hydro when its contract expires in 2005.

So far, says Stewart, the campaign has been a tremendous success, with groups such as the state chapter of the Sierra Club and the Clean Water Action Alliance of Minnesota forming alliances with the Cross Lake Cree. After all, she says, there is almost as much at stake for those living in the American Midwest as for the Canadian Cree Indians. “The biggest issue is that we don’t know the social and environmental costs of the electricity,” says Stewart.

And those costs are unacceptably high, both for the Cross Lake Cree and for the U.S. environmental movement, says Kate Kempton, a Toronto-based legal adviser and strategist for the Cross Lake band. “Buying that power hurts the Crees and the northern Manitoba environment, yes. But our position is that it likely also hurts Minnesotans and other American states, because there seems to be a strong correlation between the purchase of cheap hydroelectricity–which this is–and displacement of their conservation programs and the development of true renewables, like wind.”

But don’t hold your breath waiting for wind power to replace hydroelectricity. NSP has no intention of giving up Manitoba’s cheap hydro anytime soon, says Audrey Zibelman, the company’s president of energy marketing. “Hydro power is a very important part of the fuel mix that allows us to provide electricity at a low cost, and reliably, to [our] customers,” says Zibelman. “For people to suggest that we can eliminate hydro and turn to wind is highly naive.” Not only is wind power far more expensive than hydroelectricity, she says, it’s not plentiful enough to meet customer demand.

Zibelman also insists that doing business with Manitoba Hydro does not mean that NSP has turned its back on the Cross Lake Cree. After a summer 1998 rally at NSP headquarters, Zibelman and other company officials flew to northern Manitoba to meet with native communities affected by the dams. For the most part, she says, people there seemed happy with the compensation packages that have allowed them to move on with their lives. Cross Lake leaders, however, wouldn’t meet with the delegation–a decision Zibelman says was purely political.

Not surprisingly, Manitoba Hydro shares that view. “They are, certainly, trying to embarrass us,” says company spokesman Glenn Schneider. And while there is no denying that the hydroelectric projects did have an impact on the environment, Schneider says it is not as dire as Cross Lake leaders would have people believe. “Nature has a way of recovering,” he says, adding that the company has taken steps to reverse some of the damage. For instance, it recently completed construction of a $9.5 million rock weir that prevents water levels from dropping too low in periods of drought and facilitates the passage of water more quickly in flood years. Since the NFA was signed, Hydro and the province have paid out $229 million to the four communities that agreed to a buyout, while $35 million has been spent on preliminary compensation and negotiations with Cross Lake.

That’s little consolation for people like Kenny Miswaggon, a 29-year-old father of three who worries about his children’s future. “I witness what goes on in my community every day,” says Miswaggon, a councillor with the Cross Lake band. “Hydro brags about cheap power that benefits the South,” he says. “This cheap power is coming on the backs of our people.”

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