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Crees: Power line comes with human toll
Canada tribe says dam construction has destroyed their way of life
By Nikki Kallio, Wausau Daily Herald, 16 April 2000, p3

MINNEAPOLIS - Part of John Miswagon's duty as chief of the Cross Lake Cree Nation is to identify the bodies of community members who have killed themselves.

Last year seven of the northern Manitoba nation's 5,500 people committed suicide, and 147 more attempted it. The community has a 92 percent unemployment rate, and hunting and fishing is gone.

All of this has happened since Manitoba Hydro built dams on the Nelson River in 1975, destroying the Pimicikamak Cree traditional way of life and causing a general feeling of hopelessness, Miswagon said.

Some of the power from a proposed 345-kilovolt power line from Duluth to Rothschild could come from Manitoba Hydro projects, utility officials have said. Power also would come from coal-fired plants in the Dakotas.

Wisconsin Public Service and Minnesota Power are proposing the 250-mile line because they say there's a dire need to increase electrical reliability in the state.

Miswagon, other indigenous people and activists discussed the effects of energy development during Saturday's Environmental Justice and Energy Policy in the Upper Midwest conference at St. Thomas University in Minneapolis.

Organizer and professor Steve Hoffman said people often aren't aware of the far-reaching impacts of development.

"Most people don't want to damage other people, and if they had a choice they would say, 'oh, I don't want to do this'," Hoffman said. "But the fact is people don't think of the impacts.'

About 200 people from Midwest states attended, including members of Save Our Unique Lands, or SOUL, a power-line protest group, which has members in Marathon County.

Roger Steffen, the Hawkins-based secretary of Save Our Unique Lands, said people should talk to legislators, petition and write to the Public Service Commission to help make a difference for the Cree nation.

"It already might be having some effect," he said.

Steffen said Minnesota Power officials originally said about 40 percent of power going through the proposed line would be from Manitoba Hydro, but later said little or no power would come from there.

Information from Manitoba Hydro said about 10 percent of Northern States Power electricity comes from their utility. The Minneapolis-based company's power coverage includes western Wisconsin.

Miswagon said if the power line is built, the Cree in northern Manitoba will experience more devastation because water levels will continue to fluctuate, eroding shorelines and killing wildlife.

Two years after the hydroelectric dams were implemented, Manitoba Hydro and five Cree nations, including Cross Lake, signed the Northern Flood Agreement, which was to provide the nations with some compensation. The Cross Lake Cree are just now receiving some benefits of the 25-year-old agreement, and only after it sued the utility, he said.

A March 6 letter to American electric customers from Bob Brennan, Manitoba Hydro president and chief executive officer, said the utility is aware of problems it has caused and has spent more than $396 million to mitigate damage in northern Manitoba.

"Our disagreement with (the Cross Lake) community is an anomaly," Brennan wrote. "We have successful, working implementation agreements with four of the five First Nations who are part of the Northern Flood Agreement."

But Miswagon said nothing short of restoring the natural environment will help the Cree. Miswagon, who is 35, remembers a much different childhood than kids born after 1975 in Cross Lake.

"My children will never have the pleasure of seeing what things were like in the old days," he said.

Copyright 1999 Wausau Daily Herald