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[From "The Circle" a Minneapolis newspaper which covers Native American issues Jan. 2000]

The Pimicikamak Cree of Cross Lake, Manitoba, are facing a problem which is eroding their livelihood and saturating all facets of their lives. That problem is the power company Manitoba Hydro, and every Minnesotan has a stake.

Manitoba Hydro is not exactly a new story for the Cree. Manitoba Hydro is a state corporation with dams in northern Manitoba for the past thirty years. Five of the twelve dams are on the Nelson river, which runs through Cross Lake on its way to Hudson Bay. The dams supply more power than necessary for Manitoba, which has one quarter the electricity needs of a state like Minnesota. So the excess power is exported to places with a power deficit or those in need of federally-mandated "green" energy. Through Northern States Power (NSP), Minnesotans are among those powered by Manitoba Hydro.

Although Hydro officials originally promised the Crees minimal water level disturbance in the Nelson river, the effects have been significant: eight to ten foot water level fluctuations both above and below normal. Add to this the consequential flooding of an area three times the size of the Boundary Waters, and you get what tribal councilor Kenny Miswaggon calls an "environmental slum." According to Miswaggon, that land is now unusable, filled with decaying biomass and devoid of animal life.

High water levels have also entered previously undisturbed soil, contaminating the river with the toxin methylmercury. Fish from the Nelson river, a staple of the Cree, have been contaminated. Pregnant women, elders and children must severely limit their intake or risk dire health consequences.

Miswaggon, the youngest of Cross Lake?s councilors, has spent much of the past year traveling around Minnesota trying to educate communities on the source of their electricity. At a summit on environmental racism in December, his presentation on behalf of the Cree was the main event. Miswaggon likened the plight of the Cree to what is happening to aboriginal people all over Canada.

"It is not very pleasant to live out there as an aboriginal," he said, choosing his words carefully. "Canada used to have the reputation of being one of the nicest places to live in, but if you ask any aboriginal person, it is not so." Miswaggon added, "[We] are right in the middle of that environmental slum Manitoba Hydro has created."

Environmental concerns aside, the constantly fluctuating river levels provide another danger to Cross Lakers. The river is dangerous in winter because it is kept at an unnatural level, making the ice thin in places once considered safe. Even in summer the river is a threat. There has been at least one boating death that many directly attribute to a low water level and the ever changing landscape beneath its surface.

In addition to the environmental destruction, Cross Lakers face an unemployment rate estimated at 85 to 90 percent.

These factors, many believe, have led to the recent suicide epidemic in Cross Lake - unmatched anywhere in Canada. In a community of 4,000, more than 100 residents attempted suicide in the second half of 1999 alone. One week before the environmental racism summit, another young woman in Cross Lake took her life.

Manitoba Hydro announced they are at fifty percent of capacity and would like to increase their output, selling more power to Minnesota and Wisconsin. To the Cree, this is unacceptable. Miswaggon said that greater manipulation of the water in the Nelson river would bring greater environmental hardship to the Cross Lake community.

"If you're gonna double the exports, that means you're gonna double the misery," said Miswaggon.

Ann Stewart, information officer for the Cross Lake, says Minnesota citizens are a crucial link in alleviating the suffering up north. She suggests letting NSP officials and lawmakers know that Minnesotans will not stand for energy that comes at such a price.

"We have to become the moral voice of conscience. We have to bang on their doors and let them know there are alternatives." Stewart added, "I want my electricity Cree-free."

More importantly, she adds, there are certain unique avenues available to Minnesotans in the coming months. NSP uses hydro power to fulfill a ten percent deficit in electricity. Recently they named seven companies on a bid list to fill that deficit, one of which is Manitoba Hydro. The list also includes a company using wind power, a form of energy typically favored by environmentalists. By some estimates, wind power in the midwest at full development could provide three-quarters of U.S. energy needs. NSP is expected to sign its new contract by mid-April, giving energy consumers a window of opportunity to voice their concerns.

Write to: Jim Howard, President and CEO, Northern States Power Company, 414 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, MN 55401.

For more information: Ann Stewart, US Information Officer, Pimicikamak Cree Nation, or 612-871-8404. Related web site: