³Only Beavers Should Build Dams²
Chief John Miswagon, Pimicikamak Cree Nation
Cross Lake, Manitoba, Canada
Environmental Justice and Energy Policy in the Upper Midwest
University of St. Thomas Minneapolis, Minnesota 15 April 2000
[Traditional remarks in Cree / translate into English]
Thank you for this opportunity to speak about the human impacts of energy
development for our community of Cross Lake, Manitoba.
Greetings to all of you. I also extend my greetings to our brothers and
sisters from Split Lake.
We Pimicikamak Crees are water and forest people who have lived in
Nitaskinan -- ³Our Land² for thousands of years. This remote sub-arctic
habitat southwest of Hudson Bay deserves attention by you for at least two
Our forests, uplands and river basins provide nesting and staging areas for
the migratory species that use the Mississippi Flyway. And our boreal
forests are as significant to the health of this hemisphere as the Amazonıs,
because they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The Nelson River drainage area is huge. It stretches from Alberta in the
west to Lake Superior in the east, to Hudson Bay in the north. It covers
parts of Montana, North and South Dakota, Minnesota and your Boundary Waters
Cross Lake, where we live, is ten miles from the control gate that holds
back the water in Lake Winnipeg and releases it into the Nelson River to
generate power. The whole river basin has been engineered as a big hydro
Eleven percent of your power in the Twin Cities comes from the five
generating stations built on the Nelson.
When Manitoba Hydro arrived in Nitaskinan more than 30 years ago, it did not
inform us of its plans, and did not ask for Cree consent. As it began to
construct a massive hydroelectric project, it conducted no comprehensive
environmental assessments or cultural inventories. To this day, we Crees do
not know how many species have been lost, how many habitats were destroyed,
or how many of our traditional campsites and burial grounds lie underwater,
or disappeared during construction. We do know that we have lost burial
sites, the entire fisheries of whitefish and sturgeon, our ability to travel
safely on the waterways, and much of our ability to sustain ourselves from
While I was preparing this presentation, I wondered how I could best help
you understand the results of this deliberate obliteration. I know, for
example, that Minnesota has opened its heart to 20,000 refugees from Somalia
who are making a new life in your state. But the impacts of your electricity
use are invisible to you, although we are only 20 hours away by car in good
weather. A picture is worth more than a short presentation by one Cree
Chief. Please look at the photographs being projected behind me. They show
the environmental wasteland of Jenpeg forebay near where we live, where
because of unnatural fluctuations and water flows cause, islands and boreal
forest shorelines are eroded and collapsing.
It is difficult to separate the human impacts from our environment. Across
the world, indigenous peoples speak about their connection to the land which
often reaches back thousands of years. It is no different for us in the
north. On a map, what is a remote wilderness to you is as familiar to us as
the backs of our hands. Every stream, every hill, every marsh -- even the
smallest geographic feature -- has a Cree name and a Cree history. Today,
you will find that the resource areas that have been granted to the five
Cree communities and the traplines assigned to our trappers all bear a label
or a number in your language.
The builders of large hydroelectric projects use words like self renewing
power,² green energyı, and safe electricityı. We Crees have had to invent
words to describe our reality. Imagine the pain of a mother who must teach
her children dirty words like emachakamik, which refers both to water
polluted by the soils that wash into our water from the continual erosion of
the river banks, as well as the water polluted by methylmercury, which
poisons our food -- the furbearing animals and the fish. Or amuskaweek,
which means weak ice. The hydroprojectıs water fluctuations cause an
unreliable cycle of freezing and thawing which makes all travel hazardous.
Todayıs children will never have the pleasure and security of a clean
The news has been reported that our community has very high rates of suicide
and suicide attempts. When you examine the statistics, you find that those
who are actively suicidal include men and women, youth and elders, parents
and single people. Manitoba Hydro will tell you that there is no connection
between its project and the poverty and despair existing in every affected
Cree community. They will probably also tell you that if our people did not
abuse alcohol, we would not have as many suicides, broken homes and
As Chief, it is my duty to be informed immediately about every attempt, and
to attend every funeral. I never know when the next phone call will come.
Since last December, we Pimicikamak Crees have been seeking funding from the
government of Canada to keep our crisis center -- which operates out of a
trailer -- in operation. So far we have received $50,000 in Canadian
dollars, and have been accused of running a suicide industry. Thatıs the way
it is up north. A government-owned utility builds a project on our land, but
the same government is not willing to help us recover our dignity, restore
our lands and rebuild our economy.
For more than twenty years, our people have been beaten up in silence by
Manitoba Hydro and the governments of Manitoba and Canada. And now they
tell us that we should not tell our story to the American customers of the
The simple truth is that when Northern States Power and other American
utilities want power, Manitoba Hydro turns on the Cree environment to
generate it. Last fall, Manitoba Hydro announced plans to double its exports
to the US. A few weeks ago it announced plans to build another dam on the
Nelson River. Manitoba Hydro intends to become the electric battery for the
Midwest in the coming age of electric industry restructuring.
What are the human impacts of these announcements for us in Cross Lake? In
the case of Cross Lake, every unit of water stored in Lake Winnipeg and
released later causes drought and floods right where we live. Quite simply,
more electricity means there will be more, not less, environmental damage.
Our trappers have already seen the richness of their traplines diminished.
Our fishermen tell me how of their difficulties as they try to sustain
fisheries constantly affected by the force and fluctuations of the water
releases and by dirty water. Parents tell me how this news affects their
children. These projects are our nightmare.
Aboriginal peoples in the north should not be asked to pay for the energy
choices being made in the south with our lands, our resources, our
livelihood and our lives. This is not fair. This is not just.
Manitoba Hydro and the governments of Manitoba and Canada are now saying
they understand the error of their past ways, and that they will now protect
the environment and treat the indigenous people fairly. In 1977, they
promised to clean up the thousands of miles of shorelines and remove forest
debris from all of the project areas. This work has only just begun, and
only as a result of our insistence. At the present rate of progress,
determined by Manitoba Hydro, this clean-up will take hundreds of years to
complete. This is just one example of many of the environmental and social
measures that have never been carried out as promised.
But promises like these, whether they are now carried out or not, are no
longer acceptable. Mega-hydroprojects such as Manitoba Hydroıs Lake
Winnipeg Regulation and Churchill, Nelson Rivers Diversion Project are not
sustainable. The electricity Manitoba Hydro sells to you is not clean or
renewable, for you or for us. It is not cheap either. More destruction of
the waters of Nitaskinan and the boreal environment of which it is part
should be unthinkable in todayıs world. We should be planning for the
decommissioning of these terrible undertakings, not building more.
There are alternatives to this kind of short-sighted destruction. Manitoba
itself does not need more power. And Minnesotans have the wind power, the
conservation potential, and the environmental and human rights conscience to
reject harmful hydro from Manitoba. In the end, only the beavers should
build more dams in Manitoba.
We invite you to help us demonstrate to your governments, your utilities and
your regulators that this precious North American resource, the boreal
forest, rivers and lakes, are worth protecting, cleaning up, and saving for
Ekosani! Thank you.