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We won't be beaten up in silence
The struggle in northern Manitoba is about more than $300-million, says Cree chief John Miswagon-- it's about justice
Comment, The Globe and Mail. 6 March 2000, p.A11

Cross Lake Chief John Miswagon

Thirty years ago, without our consent and against our wishes, Manitoba Hydro came to our traditional lands around Cross Lake, north of Lake Winnipeg. Hydro and the government of Manitoba proceeded to dam and divert our rivers and flood vast areas of lakes and boreal forest. Incredibly, they also came to conscript Lake Winnipeg as a reservoir, a vast storage battery, to hold back water in the summer and release surges down the Nelson River to generate power in the winter.

We are a hunting and fishing people. For this reason, Hydro's megaproject has been a nightmare for our people. Within just a few years of Hydro's arrival, our environment and our traditional economies lay in ruins. Solemn promises made by Canada, Manitoba and Manitoba Hydro in a written Charter of Rights and Benefits -- of replacement lands, community infrastructure and social development -- have never been kept. Instead, our people endure mass poverty and unemployment, Third World living conditions and an epidemic of suicide. There have been more than 140 attempts in the last year, and seven deaths. Meanwhile, Hydro and the governments extract billions of dollars of resources in our back yard.

For 25 years we have tried to tend to our collective wounds and adjust to environmental, social, economic and cultural shock. Only now are our people emerging from despair. We are surveying the state of our environment, of our nation, and of our rights in law and nature. We have resolved that we will no longer go quietly down a path of cultural and political extinction. This is why we have now launched an international campaign to tell our story to the world.

Yet Manitoba Hydro is hotly contesting what is referred to as our "claims" about the impacts of its hydro-electric megaprojects on our lands and our lives. A company spokesman accuses us of a "broad strategy to embarrass the utility."

There is much for Hydro and the governments to be embarrassed about. Shoreline erosion is continuous; sometimes burial grounds become exposed, leaving skulls and bones sticking out of the mud. The graves of my family's ancestors are now under water. It's indisputable that millions of acres have been flooded and despoiled and boreal lands rendered inaccessible. Also indisputable are the thousands of miles of devastated shorelines, the mercury contamination, and at the least 50 lives we have lost; many trappers and fishermen have been killed because the territory they once knew intimately is now hazardous (Manitoba Hydro has been found legally liable in several cases).

These facts led Mr. Justice Patrick Ferg to rule in 1982 that Hydro's project "drastically altered" our society and environment and "almost turned the [river] system upside down from a state of nature"; these facts led the 1991 Manitoba Aboriginal Justice Inquiry to characterize Hydro's project as a vast assault on the Manitoba environment with concomitant social impacts on Aboriginal peoples. And these facts led a 1999 Inter-Church Inquiry to state that our lands and people have been subjected to "an ecological and moral catastrophe."

Most recently, the Sierra Club of North America, after viewing the megaproject first-hand, concluded that "hydro-electric development of this magnitude and type is not clean, benign or renewable: It devastates land, water, species and their habitats, and the people who live with this environment, and it often displaces truly renewable energy alternatives and conservation measures." The Sierrans urged "all [American] utilities to divert expenditures from this type of harmful hydro power to development and use of cleaner, renewable alternatives such as wind and solar power, and to conservation programs."

The United Nations has recently -- again -- found Canada to be in violation of its international human-rights obligations, particularly with respect to depriving our people of our rights to self-determination, our rights to not be deprived of our own means of subsistence, and to our natural wealth and resources, under Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Our people's experience is a case study of dispossession.

And now we hear that Manitoba Hydro has announced plans to double its hydro-electric capacity and its exports, already in excess of $300-million. The company tells the public that we are simply seeking to raise some compensation. It is also said that we are calling for a "boycott" of Manitoba Hydro power by U.S. citizens. But we are only telling them our story.

We state: This is a fundamental misapprehension of our people's rights and aspirations, of which we have directly informed the corporation many times. Our struggle is for survival, dignity, a sustainable and healthy environment, inclusion in the benefits of the Canadian economy, and respect for our rights.

Compensation money is a corrosive last resort where mitigation, remediation and economic and social development are impossible. Sadly, the truly beneficial options available to Hydro and the governments have never been tried.

The utility should stop attempting to minimize our rights, and instead begin to address the devastating impacts of its activities on our environment and our lives. This will include developing a vision of boreal Manitoba as a multi-user environment, in which indigenous peoples, rivers, lakes, shorelines, flora and fauna are no longer sacrificed to mega-development and electricity exports.

Our people have decided that they will no longer be beaten up in silence. We will tell our story and assert our rights -- in churches, universities, human-rights forums, energy-regulatory agencies, and financial markets in Canada and elsewhere. That includes places where Manitoba Hydro sells electricity and bonds. If this causes U.S. electricity consumers to decline to buy power that is generated through the sacrifice of Cree lives and an entire environment, so be it. We know that the Americans have other energy options that are genuinely renewable, sustainable, equitable, and consistent with morality. When Hydro and the Crown come to respect our Aboriginal, treaty and other human rights, then that is the story we will tell.

Hydro and the governments of Manitoba and Canada are parties to our 1977 treaty, the Northern Flood Agreement. We are trying to get them to make this ongoing treaty relationship work. But the defence of our environment and our human rights is not a bargaining chip. Our elders remind us that we Ininiwak were put here by the Creator to look after Nitaskinan and the boreal environment of which it is part. We have decided to be the environmental and human-rights conscience that Manitoba Hydro, Manitoba and Canada do not have.

We will now do so.

John Miswagon was elected chief of Pimicikamak Cree Nation in Cross Lake, Man., in September of 1999.