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Canadian Indian chief decries effects of hydroelectric power
Tom Meersman / Star Tribune, 17 April 2000, pB2

An American Indian chief from Canada told an audience of about 200 Saturday in Minneapolis that hydroelectric power, sold through Manitoba Power to Northern States Power Co. (NSP) and other Minnesota utilities, has destroyed his people's way of life, dignity and culture over the past 25 years. "Electricity that Manitoba Hydro sells to you is not clean, it is not renewable for you or for us, and it is not cheap," said John Miswaggon, chief of the Pimicikimak Cree Nation of Cross Lake, Manitoba, about 400 miles north of Winnipeg.

He spoke at a one-day conference on human rights and energy issues at the University of St. Thomas. Miswaggon said dams and hydroelectric plants built in the 1970s and 1980s have diverted rivers, flooded forests, decimated fisheries, eroded burial grounds and ruined trapping routes. The cumulative effect, he said, has been to deprive his community of 5,500 people of their pride and livelihood, which has been replaced largely by an "underlying common denominator of hopelessness."

Last year there were seven suicides at Cross Lake, Miswaggon said, and there have been 142 attempted suicides since last fall. "It is my duty as chief to be informed immediately of every attempt, and it is my duty to attend every funeral, and it my duty to identify bodies that are hanging from trees, houses, you name it," he said. "There came a point in time last year when every phone call I got made me nervous."

Manitoba Hydro officials said it is unfair for the Cross Lake community to blame all of its social ills on the hydroelectric projects. "There was a lot of unemployment before our projects, and they look to us to remedy all their problems these days," spokesman Glenn Schneider said. The utility operates as an arm of provincial government.

Schneider acknowledged that the huge changes in river systems affected the tribe's traditional hunting, fishing and trapping activities, but he noted that in most cases the wildlife populations have recovered over the past 25 years. Fishing turned profitable for the tribe in recent years, he said, and the problem with trapping hasn't been a lack of animals, but a downturn in the world fur market.

He said Manitoba Hydro has provided $44 million (in Canadian currency) to the Cross Lake tribe to assist its members with hunting and fishing programs, and to compensate for about 2,900 of the 3,200 individual claims that have been filed for property loss and damage. Four other Cree tribes affected by the hydro projects also have been compensated, Schneider said, and one is working with the utility on a possible future hydroelectric project.

Past problems, preliminary plans for more dams and proposals for new power lines in Minnesota and Wisconsin have begun to draw attention and concern from some Minnesota environmental groups and religious organizations. NSP, which receives about 10 percent of its electricity from Manitoba Hydro, said two weeks ago that it plans to renew a major 10-year contract with Manitoba Hydro that expires in 2005, provided that financial terms can be worked out and state regulatory approvals are received. "Over the years we've had good experiences with purchases from Manitoba Hydro as far as reliability and economics," said Jim Alders, NSP manager of regulatory projects.

As far as the effects of hydroelectric plants upon the Cross Lake community, Alders said: "We think that's an issue that needs to be resolved by those closest to it: the Canadian government, Manitoba Hydro and the first nations [Indian tribes]."

Energy and social issues

Although the Manitoba dispute was one of the more prominent issues at the conference, its organizer said the purpose of the meeting was to discuss more broadly the relationship between human rights issues and energy policy. Steve Hoffman, St. Thomas environmental studies director, said there is a pattern of large power lines, nuclear reactors, hydroelectric dams and coal-fired power plants being selected and built mainly on the basis of their physical impacts, but not always with much consideration for their social repercussions. The result has been that many energy plants, he said, as well as hazardous-waste dumps and incinerators, have been built disproportionately near low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. That concept, called environmental racism, is "not much used in thinking about resource decisions, and hardly at all in thinking about energy policy," Hoffman said. "The question we need to ask is whether people have an opportunity to participate meaningfully in decisions that affect their social lives and the physical environment that they depend upon." Other conference speakers cited examples of immense dams in India, China, Brazil, Guatemala and Indonesia that have flooded millions of acres of fertile farmland and forced about 90 million people to relocate against their will; proposals to strip-mine coal in southeastern Montana against the wishes of the northern Cheyenne nation; extensive uranium mining that has exposed native people to radioactive mining wastes in Namibia, South Africa, Australia and New Mexico, and large-scale logging, mining and river damming throughout northern Canada and Alaska without adequate compensation for tribal communities.

Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., who was active in a power-line construction controversy in central Minnesota in the 1970s, told conference attendees that they need to improve their grass-roots organizing skills to promote renewable energy and its favorable economics and environmental benefits. "Minnesota seems to go through this every 20 years or so, but honest to goodness, we're a perfect example of a place where it's in our economic self-interest to keep a whole lot more capital in our state if we commit to wind and solar and biomass," he said. "It's a big part of our future."
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