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The following was written by
Will Braun
Mennonite Central Committee
Hydro Justice Initiative
Phone: 204-261-6381
Fax: 204-269-9875


Church Involvement in Hydro Justice
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada - In the early 1970s, several Manitoba church-goers realized that the same monumental hydroelectric project--then taking shape far to the north--that would power the lights in their church sanctuaries was also posing a dire threat to the Aboriginal people whose rivers were being dammed. Not blinded by the glow of economic progress, they were drawn to fight what they feared would be a highly exploitative development carried out by their public utility and their government for their benefit.

Out of this basic human concern, the Inter-Church Task Force on Northern Flooding was born. After the provincial government took steps to reduce the requirements for due public process regarding the imminent hydro project, the Inter-Church Task Force took this responsibility upon itself. In 1975, the group convened an inquiry which allowed open discussion of the costs and benefits of northern hydro development, and heard the voices of those who would be most affected. The inquiry, chaired by retired judge C. Rhodes Smith, contributed to the formation of the 1977 Northern Flood Agreement which promises ongoing fair and equitable treatment for five Bands living in the path of the hydro mega-project.

With some of the same church leaders still involved, the Manitoba Aboriginal Rights Coalition (MARC) recently reopened the 1975 church-sponsored inquiry. Leading up to the June 1999 inquiry, retired United Church Minister Jack McLachlan, who led the Inter-Church Task Force in the 1970s and is now active in MARC, expressed the need to publically revisit the issues.

In the 1970s we said it was incomprehensible to think that we would not share an ongoing portion of the enormous wealth that this Hydro project would generate for us in southern Manitoba, since it came by way of the treaty land of First Nations. I believe it is time to publicly assess whether northern Aboriginal peoples have had a fair share of the benefits generated in their backyards, said McLachlan.

Both inquiries understood that respectful treatment of Aboriginal people affected by the dams simply does not happen unless meaningful links are established between people on either side of the economic equation - those harmed by production and those who benefit as consumers.

Thinking Through the Church Role in Aboriginal Justice

The 1975 inquiry clarified the issue by asking: "What are the social and environmental costs of [the Churchill-Nelson Hydro-Electric] project... ? To whom will go the costs and to whom will go the benefits of the project?" Twenty-four years later, the churches are publically asking whether those who have paid the environmental and social costs have also received a fair share of the immense wealth generated on their territory. Are the power rates of those who use electricity from northern Manitoba subsidized by the suffering of Aboriginal people at the northern end of the transmission line?

By framing the issue in this manner, the role of non-Native churches shifts from the antiquated "how-can-we-help-the-poor-Indians" approach, to hearing the call to take responsibility for the way in which our participation as mainstream consumers comes at the expense of those who are pushed to the margins. The former role requires non-Native church-goers to be knowledgeable and rich, while the latter calls them to be willing to learn how their wealth has come at the expense of others, and to actively and sacrificially respond in the Spirit of the Beatitudes.

Public Awareness Not Enough

While the Inter-Church Inquiry into Northern Hydro Development provided for valuable, open discussion of important issues, it is only one piece of a much larger picture. Though it is an essential step, public awareness in itself does not ensure fairness and equity. The 1975 inquiry was a bold, creative and valuable endeavour, but if it had fulfilled its ultimate goal there would have been no need for a repeat inquiry 24 years later. Public awareness and goodwill between peoples must translate into substantive actions of consumer responsibility.

If the public inquiry would result in widespread condemnation of governments and Manitoba Hydro it would fail. If it would contribute to members of the Manitoba faith community taking actions which free them from the oppressive economic relationship with Cross Lake, it would contribute to the healing of a broken covenant (the Northern Flood Agreement) between hydro users and northern Native people.

The word must become flesh. Unless consumers act creatively and courageously to break with the status quo, the "word" is reduced to "PR" and the "flesh" (in the south and north) remains enslaved to the status quo.

The ultimate purpose of Christ's time on earth was not to facilitate public debate, or convene conferences but to bring about the flesh-and-blood, here-and-now realization of a kingdom of love, peace and wholeness. At the core of Christ's struggles to bring this about was not condemnation, judgement, or public education but creatively sacrificial acts of love and liberation.

August, 1999