A first wave of hydro development in Northern Manitoba in the 70s and then a second one in the 2000s has had, and is having, devastating effects on the ecosystems and Cree communities. Cree communities and supporters have resisted hydro development through occupations, blockades, marches, public campaigns, and alliances. Resistance, negotiations and dam construction continue. This long running conflict has involved the development and operation of over a dozen hydro generating stations in the region.
“A generation of Aboriginal leaders who had grown up going out on the land for emotional and material sustenance suddenly found their territory irreparably damaged: logs blocking access to shores; undrinkable water; water levels that fluctuated according to no locally known logic, making travel unsafe; interred bodies exposed; islands slowly washed away . Whole communities were displaced as a result of planned flooding . Rivers, once a pristine source of life, have became silty and dangerous. “Around much of northern Manitoba, ‘hydro’ is a dirty word, and for good reason. These projects have reconfigured the landscape of the entire region, drying whole rivers and engorging lakes. Mercury has likely been released into the groundwater, and wildlife habitat has been destroyed" .
During the first wave of hydro development, “the Churchill River was diverted so that it would flow into the Nelson and add to the latter’s rate of flow. A dam was built near the south end of the Nelson, which effectively turned Lake Winnipeg into a giant water reservoir whose levels could be managed by engineers" . Although Manitoba Hydro assured everyone that the environmental impacts of the project would be minimal, and no environmental review was conducted" . “The first wave of hydro development created a legacy of distrust and even hatred toward Manitoba Hydro on the part of many Aboriginal peoples” .
During the second wave three new dams were built, the first at Wuskwatim, near Nelson House , the second is Keeyask  and the third is Conawapa, also on the Nelson River. Two other dams, Notigi and Gillam Island, are on Manitoba Hydro’s wish list. The power generated by these dams is not needed in Manitoba, but will instead be exported to the United States . Being that during the second wave, “Aboriginal rights were now constitutionally recognized, they needed the co-operation of communities where their actions had created a legacy of hatred. Thus, Manitoba Hydro offered each community, separately, a financial settlement for what were called ‘implementation agreements’. They succeeded in getting four of the five First Nations to sign on, which was sufficient to proceed with a new wave of projects” .
The inexpensive hydro rates they have made available to southern Manitobans, is paid for with ecological and social devastation . According to the 2018 Report by the Clean Environment Commission, this is seen as a social justice gap: Cree communities “remain impoverished and marginalized, while their traditional lands are the source of power and profits that accrue to residents of southern Manitoba” . Their "territories are again being treated as a colonial frontier” .
1908: The community of Nelson House signed Treaty 5 .
1923: The Great Falls Dam was the first of four dams built on the Winnipeg River. It was built without any consultation with the First Nation most affected by the project .
1960: Kelsey Generating Station was built on the Nelson River without any consultation with the First Nation most affected by the project .
1965: Grand Rapids dam on the Saskatchewan River was built without any consultation with the First Nation most affected by the project. “This project involved the wholesale relocation of the community of Chemawawin to Easterville. It also completely disrupted the Grand Rapids First Nation (now Misipawistik), located at the site of construction, by drying up the site of the once-sacred rapids, flooding land, and every year sending more debris into the river and lake, making fishing much more difficult .
1960s: Impacts of Hydro workers arriving in Northern communities included: sexual assaults perpetrated by male workers against Indigenous women. “During this time Indigenous people were shoved off their land, their homes were razed, their playgrounds were bulldozed, their kids were segregated on separate school buses and their livelihoods were destroyed” .
1970s: “By the early 1970s, plans for further major hydro developments were under way, which eventually led to the Churchill River Diversion and Lake Winnipeg Regulation projects. These projects reshaped the whole hydrology of northern Manitoba, to the detriment of six Cree communities”. When construction for these projects first began, the five First Nations affected came together to form the Northern Flood Committee. The community of South Indian Lake was entirely relocated and effectively destroyed as a fishing community due to project-related flooding” .
1977: Northern Flood Agreement (NFA) was signed by Canada, Manitoba, Manitoba
Hydro and the Northern Flood Committee representing the five First
Nations (Nelson House, Norway House, Cross Lake, Split Lake and York
Factory) whose reserve lands were to be flooded by dams. The agreement provided for an exchange
of four acres for each acre flooded, the expansion and protection of
wildlife harvesting rights, five million dollars to be paid over five
years to support economic development projects on the reserves and
promises of employment opportunities. The five First Nations were guaranteed
a role in future resource development as well as in wildlife management
and environmental protection. In return, Hydro
obtained the right to flood reserve lands as part of the Churchill
Diversion Project. Manitoba Hydro obtained what it wanted as it proceeded
with this massive project. The reaction from Aboriginal people has been
far from positive" .
1987: “The government of Manitoba and its publicly owned power utility decided the promises in the NFA were too big and moved to negotiate what are misleadingly called ‘implementation agreements’ – effectively cash buyouts of the promises made in the NFA. As of 2004, only one of the five communities, Cross Lake (centre of the Pimicikamak Cree Nation), has courageously refused the buyout and continues to lobby for real implementation of the NFA” .
October 2003: “The Summary of Understandings between Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation and Manitoba Hydro with Respect to the Wuskwatim Project” was negotiated. Steven Hoffman of the University of St. Thomas in the U.S., has said that ‘the agreement represents not the end of colonialism but its zenith’. The deal itself is deeply flawed. It basically involves a loan by Manitoba Hydro to Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (NCN) so they can assume up to a one-third-equity position in the project. That is, by assuming joint risk, they will become minority owners. They are not being compensated for developments taking place on their lands, nor are they being made into nation-to-nation partners in economic development. Rather, they are being tossed a poisoned bone” .
January 2004: “At a conference at the University of Winnipeg, Minister of Energy Tim Sale held up the Wuskwatim project as a way of meeting Kyoto Accord targets, leading to cutbacks of coal emissions in the production of power in favour of “greener” hydroelectric power from northern Manitoba. It would be good for the environment, good for the economy, good for everyone, according to the Minister”.
2014: Wa Ni Ska Tan, an Alliance of Hydro-Impacted Communities formed, shaped by the priorities of hydro-impacted Indigenous communities. The Alliance consists of representatives from 24 Cree (Ininew/Inniniwak), Anishinaabe, and Métis nations; 22 researchers; 14 social justice and environmental NGOs; 9 universities from Canada and the US; and multiple levels of government. The overall goal of Wa Ni Ska Tan is to explore both the positive and negative implications of hydropower for nearby environments and Indigenous communities in Manitoba and other affected regions across Canada” .
September 2014: Members of a Pimicikamak First Nation begin occupying a Jenpeg hydroelectric dam over longstanding grievances with Manitoba Hydro, including unaffordable electricity bills. The issue is larger than utility bills. There are issues of treaty rights to land and the NFA which isn’t being implemented .
September 2016: “People from the Opaskwayak Cree Nation and their supporters erected a blockade on a major highway in northern Manitoba, stopping trucks and equipment bound for a massive hydroelectric development project. Protestors are from two groups that have been attempting to negotiate a settlement related to the construction of the Grand Rapids Generating Station over five decades ago. When talks broke down, they created the blockade to pressure the government back to the negotiation table" .
May 2018: The Public Utilities Board (PUB) propose an order to implement a special rate class for First Nations residents to deal with unaffordable electricity bills being faced in the North. The "electricity rates and the resulting bills place a particularly heavy burden on First Nations communities due to inadequate housing infrastructure and the absolute levels of poverty" . Wa Ni Ska Tan launch #MB RateGate campaign to support the PUB order.
August 2018: Clean Environment Commission report released review of a joint Manitoba Hydro/provincial government “cumulative effects assessment” on the impact of Hydro developments along the Nelson, Burntwood and Churchill river systems over the past 60 years . “It was a nightmare, basically. And it put an end to a life of self-sufficiency for the local Indigenous population, as the construction of dams and transmission lines turned the ecosystem on its head, resulting in massive flooding, deforestation, blocked transportation routes, contaminated water and displaced game, the CEC report found” . Though relations have improved since the 60s, the report found that there is “still conflict and issues of racism around existing Hydro projects” .
December 2018: On Human Rights Day, people marched through Winnipeg streets to raise awareness about the impacts that hydroelectric development. They were calling on the province and Manitoba Hydro to be accountable to the Indigenous communities that have been affected by hydroelectric dams in the north. They called on the government in Manitoba and the federal government to honour the treaties and the NFA .
2019: Report finds that there have been nine sexual assault investigations at the Keeyask generating station since 2015, four of which have resulted in charges. "We as the Cree Nation Partners are not being listened to. We're not being taken seriously about what's happening within the project. Racism, harassment, discrimination, even assaults, are happening at all levels within the project," said Nathan Neckoway, a band councillor with Tataskweyak Cree Nation .
March 2019: Province Wide Day of Action on Water and Hydro planned .