The following was written by
Mennonite Central Committee
Hydro Justice Initiative
FROM "PR" TO INCARNATION:
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
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,
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
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.