Link between energy issues, human rights explored
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
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
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
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
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
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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