Xcel Energy says hydroelectric power is clean and reliable. For the Pimicikamak Cree Nation, it constitutes an ecological, social, and moral catastrophe.

In Northern Manitoba, late June is notable for two things: The daylight lingers until midnight; and there are an astonishing number of horseflies. On this day, in the midst of a vast wilderness of rivers, lakes, and forest, the noon sun is beating down with full force, a hot wind is blowing, and the horseflies are everywhere. But Charlie Osborne and Gideon McKay are indifferent to the attacking pests. Like their Cree Indian forebears, they have spent much of their lives fishing, hunting, and trapping (Osborne is 79 years old, McKay 75). So there's a chance that all that time in the bush imbued them with some special ability to disregard insects. It's a better guess, though, that they simply have bigger things on their mind. After all, they have just arrived at a place that has come to symbolize the harm that's befallen their people and their homeland in the last half of the 20th Century. What's a fly compared to that?

The two men are standing on the side of a gravel road just outside the Jenpeg Generating Station, one of five major hydroelectric power plants that are owned by the Manitoba province and sit along its largest river, the Nelson. The spot is 400 miles north of the Manitoba-Minnesota border and a 45-minute car ride from the nearest community, Cross Lake--where Osborne, McKay, and most of the other 5,876 members of the Pimicikamak Cree Nation live. While few residents of Cross Lake have cause to visit Jenpeg regularly, this place has loomed large over the Pimicikamak people--environmentally, politically, economically, and spiritually.

Osborne and McKay are among the shrinking number of Pimicikamak Cree old enough to remember clearly what this stretch of the Nelson River looked like before Jenpeg. Which is why they have come to this spot today: to tell.

Michelle Gunderson

Pulling down the visor on his "Indian and Treaty Days" baseball cap, Osborne peers through his thick eyeglasses and points to the big reservoir at the head of the Jenpeg dam. Before the construction of Jenpeg in the mid-Seventies, he explains in his native Cree, the river was much narrower at this spot--full of islands, rapids, and fish. You could catch an 80-pound sturgeon, enough to feed your family for a week, or net loads of whitefish. When the dam went up, everything changed: the rapids vanished; the rising water washed away islands; miles of shoreline were eroded; methyl mercury from the soil found its way into the river and, ultimately, the food chain.

Then there are the trees. More than two decades after Jenpeg's completion, huge piles of sun-bleached, half-rotted timber are still scattered throughout the river system, and there are countless "spiders" (the root systems from flooded-out trees) floating in the waters--all of which create hazards and headaches for Cree fishermen. Flood debris fouls their nets. Spiders cause damage to their boats and motors. Even worse, Osborne complains, is what has become of the fish themselves. The taste has changed, making him worry that the whitefish have lost the medicinal quality that has long made the species valuable to the Cree. "Before the project," Osborne says, using the term everyone in these parts uses to describe Jenpeg, "our way of life was beautiful. The project destroyed it. But the government doesn't want to believe what they've done to us."

Nine of us have made this trip from Cross Lake to Jenpeg: McKay, Osborne, a translator, and a fact-finding delegation from Minnesota led by Ken Bradley. Bradley, a 37-year-old activist (and former standup comedian), was hired in February by the St. Paul-based nonprofit Minnesotans for an Energy Efficient Economy (ME3), to draw attention to both the plight of the Pimicikamak and the problems posed by large-scale hydro projects.

Bradley knows that most Minnesotans have never heard of the Pimicikamak Cree Nation or Manitoba Hydro, the province-owned utility that operates Jenpeg. But he believes it's high time that changed. About 42 percent of the power generated by Hydro is exported to the U.S., chiefly to the Minneapolis-based utility Xcel Energy. According to an Xcel spokesperson, electricity from Manitoba Hydro constitutes about 12 percent of the company's sales in the Upper Midwest.

Since Canadian environmental regulations are less stringent than U.S. regulations, Bradley and other supporters of Pimicikamak argue, Xcel is exploiting an environmental loophole to import cheap hydro power. At the very least, they insist, Xcel should wield its considerable clout to prompt change.

A few months ago, Bradley kicked off a metro-wide advertising campaign, publicizing the phone number of Xcel CEO Wayne Brunetti and urging customers to call him to demand that the company rethink its reliance on Canadian hydro power. Bradley chuckles about the discomfort the ad reportedly caused in Xcel's corporate office, but he is serious about the message. "What really burns me about this is that Manitoba Hydro and Xcel represent this as green power," he says. Bradley likens Hydro to a sweatshop that uses child labor; the consequences of its production are not always evident to the consumers, he says. "[But] when consumers find out about it, I don't think they're going to be happy."

This is Bradley's first trip to northern Manitoba. The goal, he says, is simple. "It's one thing to tell people about the problem. It's another thing to say that you have actually seen it. To be able to say, 'I was there.' That gives us a lot more credibility."

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