Electric Beads and Our Dam Future: Hydroelectric Development on Cree Territory

I was driving to my community, Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (NCN) in northern Manitoba, under dire circumstances. There had just been a suicide, and my children's great-grandfather lay clinging to life in a hospital in a nearby town. I felt a plethora of emotions on the nine-hour drive home. My initial sense of confusion and grief would be replaced with frustration and anger as I neared my destination. I couldn't help but wonder at what point our values were sacrificed for material gain. As I passed the community of Grand Rapids, where I had recently worked on documenting appalling stories related to hydroelectric development, resentment, perhaps what Native Studies professor Dr. Kulchyski refers to as 'the legacy of hatred,' came over me.

From Grand Rapids, a succession of steel towers and electrical lines accompanied me northward, as if to taunt me. They were a cutting reminder of how the industry that develops them and a society that covets their output have invaded, undermined and decimated, in a span of less than four decades, the values and lifestyles of Ithinewuk, known as 'Cree' in English, who have inhabited northern Manitoba since time immemorial. A sense of rage crept over me as I thought about the recent events in my community. I thought about the unnecessary deaths and the devaluation of our elders, our young people and our way of life. I also thought about the divisiveness and fear within the community. I recalled the despondent look on that faces of some of my community members; this was (is) the face of neo-colonialism. Are the unfortunate events in my community related to the hydroelectric development of our land? I couldn't help but think that the turmoil and despair in my community was directly connected to the steel towers that ran along side me on my journey home, and I couldn't help but wonder about our dam future.

Hydroelectric development in northern Manitoba is not new. Dams have been built, rivers have been diverted, lands have been flooded, and communities have been relocated and permanently disrupted. But the latest hydroelectric deal is different, so we are told. The efforts of Hydro and the NCN leadership can be viewed as a "partnership" performance in the latest attempt at something "new". Manitoba Hydro is suddenly a concerned promoter of the good of the community in its role associated with the Wuskwatim Paternership. The outside sees images of a happy and thriving community, replete with fallacies of 'traditional' activity and cooperation, which are entirely at odds with the stark reality in my community. Within Nisichawayasihk, a gentle and resilient people suffer in silence. The decaying infrastructure and social crises, resulting largely from a decay of the spirit, have become the harsh reality. The performative façade engineered by the proponents of the Wuskwatim Partnership is convincing; we are purportedly a community that will be leading the way with a mutually beneficial economic development strategy. This performance has been an effective tool in sending the message that is an innovative means of realizing an improved standard of living for NCN, one that other indigenous communities could look to.

What impoverished community would turn away the lure of jobs and economic prosperity? This seems to be the lucrative deal, but is it really? We pay over 65 million dollars into the development of a hydroelectric dam in our traditional territory, endangering an already fragile ecosystem and incurring a debt load that is beyond the resources available to us, and we have the "opportunity" to "own up to 33%" of the dam. But wait. The lure presented to NCN sounds quite like the shiny beads tactic that was undertaken in the fur-trade era. And are these not the same kind of promises that were made during the treaty-making era? Is this really a progressive move, or are we being deceived into believing that this is the only opportunity available to better our community, at the cost of our land and values? Economic security on a reserve with a crippling unemployment is very tempting. And yet, somehow, I can't help but think that behind the performance lurks the same old ending. It is like watching the same play twice and hoping it will turn out differently. In his book related to hydroelectric development, As Long As the Rivers Run, James Waldram has observed:

The philosophies and procedures whereby governments and public and private electrical power utilities have secured the right to construct hydro facilities, and thereby alter and frequently destroy the livelihood of many [Aboriginal] peoples, represents a continuity with the past…the processes are the similar: a resource is identified as valuable to the general society, and the Natives must be convinced that they should surrender it for the 'common good'…once the resource has been secured and the Native people have been appeased, they are largely ignored (1988, 4).

Waldram's observations are applicable to NCN. NCN signed on to The Northern Flood Agreement (NFA) in the mid 1970's, which compensated the Band for previous flooding and failed obligations. The utility failed to meet its obligations under the NFA. Same old story: promises made, promises broken. When will we learn? When considering the Wuskwatim project, Carol Kobliski, spokesperson for the Justice Seekers, puts it this way: "The Cree and Metis of Northern Manitoba impacted by the Churchill River Diversion were given similar promises 30 odd years ago [,] and all we have to show for it is continuing devastation, misery, and heartbreak" (for Kobliski's full testimony, see http://www.reidreporting.com/cec/june804.txt). Our past is littered with these deals. We have had treaty deals. We have had education deals. Somehow, the deals never come out quite the way we envisioned. The electric beads that are being thrown our way offer but a potential sting to NCN.

Manitoba Hydro's new partnership performance has, among other things, created a division within the community. In this performance, we sell our souls and lose our land to the mighty dollar. On the one hand, the elite and the leadership tout the political and economic innovation of the deal, while a grassroots opposition group, called the Justice Seekers, has raised doubts about the entire process. In this show, the forward thinking business partners are pitted against the wary grassroots group. Clearly, those in opposition to the dam project have some valid reasons to doubt that entering into a deal with a company that has devastated river systems and livelihoods all over the north is in our best interests, but they are at a clear financial and public relations disadvantage. Who can go up against Manitoba Hydro and the elected leadership of the community?

This is an example of an attempt to portray a prosperous future for the community. My child's image has been appropiated here.
This is an example of an attempt to portray a prosperous future for the community. My child's image has been appropiated here.

Is the Wuskwatim project really our only option for economic prosperity? Is it really our only chance to secure a future for our children? Is it the only way to develop our resources? These are the questions in my mind as I drive past the steel towers leading north to my home, a stricken community in stark contrast to the promotional images created to sell the deal. Do we want to be a part of this dam future?

For more information on the hydro issues in NCN, see: http://www.ncncree.com/people/people.html or http://www.justenergy.org for a critical analysis of similar issues. Verbatim transcripts of the Clean Environment Commission are available at:http://www.reidreporting.com/clients.html


Ramona Neckoway is from Nisichiwayasihk Cree Nation in northern Manitoba and is currently completing a Master's of Arts degree in Native Studies at the University of Manitoba in Wiinnipeg, Canada. She has taken a keen interest in hydroelectric development and intends to explore issues related to it in a doctoral upon completion of her MA.

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