Damaged

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

 

After snapping photographs of the dam site, our group heads to the Jenpeg facility for an official tour. McKay and Osborne elect to stay in the van. They have no interest in seeing the workings of the power plant or hearing about the benefits of "clean" hydro power. (When province officials were first exploring plans to harness the Nelson River, Osborne and McKay worked as guides for the engineers. Both men insist they were misled about the nature, extent, and consequences of the massive public-works project. And they are bitter about the way they were treated by employers. "When the time came for easy work, we were all laid off, McKay explains. Says Osborne: "After I finished working for them, I felt like I was dumped in the garbage. I bet those guys are sitting around like kings. I bet they never think about me.")

Inside Jenpeg, we are greeted by a friendly manager and given the nickel tour. By Manitoba Hydro's standards, Jenpeg's 97 megawatt output is relatively modest--other hydroelectric plants on the Nelson have ten times the generating capacity. Aside from the roar of the Soviet-made turbines, the plant feels curiously empty. There are only about a dozen workers on hand; despite the imposing size of the place, Jenpeg has only 51 employees, most of whom fly in from the southern part of the province for eight-day shifts.

As it happens, the size and demographic makeup of the workforce is one of the sore points for the Pimicikamak, who say that Hydro--as the locals refer to the utility--never delivered on its promise of providing jobs. Glenn Schneider, a spokesperson for Manitoba Hydro, says that there are ten employees at Jenpeg from Cross Lake and Norway House, another nearby Cree community. Pimicikamak Cree Nation Chief John Miswagon counters that most of those jobs are "janitorial-type" positions.

After the tour, we return to the van and set out for Sipiwesk Lake.

When people from Cross Lake want to show outsiders the environmental damage wrought by Hydro, they invariably take them to Sipiwesk. With countless islands and 2,000 miles of undeveloped shoreline--featuring endless tracts of boreal forest and glaciated rock--Sipiwesk looks like a Boundary Waters lake. There are stark differences, however: The water in Sipiwesk is a deep, murky brown; nearly all the shorelines are severely eroded, as if they had been hacked with a massive cleaver; and dead trees are piled everywhere along the water's edge. One estimate, extrapolated from a consultant's report for Manitoba Hydro, postulates that two to four square miles of land are washed into the lake every year.

According to Nelson Miller, a member of the Pimicikamak Cree's executive council, as the shorelines have eroded, so have traditional burial grounds along Sipiwesk Lake. Miller, who meets our group at a boat landing, explains that he wants to take us to a site where a partially exposed skeleton was discovered protruding from an eroded bank.

We don't make it. At first we are slowed because one of the boat motors is sputtering. Then a squall comes up. Sipiwesk is a big lake, and the wind churns the waves in a hurry. We seek refuge on an uninhabited, unnamed island. As the rain starts to come down, we cobble together a pair of shelters, using some old tarps and dead wood from shore. After boiling water for tea, we sit and wait out the rain while Osborne and McKay reminisce about the old days on Sipiwesk. Looking out from under the tarp at the ruined shoreline and listening to Osborne and McKay, I find it painfully obvious that Manitoba's hydro projects have harmed the physical environment.

But, for the Pimicikamak Cree, what's been done to the land and water, while tangible, is just part of the picture. Manitoba Hydro's effect on the people themselves is as hard to quantify as it is to comprehend.

 

Cross Lake is as forlorn-looking as any town you will find on the continent. The houses are a mix of trailers and cheaply built modern homes. Most look like they were placed on the lots at random, as if dropped from the sky. Many are in obvious disrepair. Shattered windows are covered by the odd piece of plywood or a half-torn piece of plastic. Litter is strewn about the streets and yards. Graffiti are spray-painted on sheds and outbuildings, signifying allegiance to Kid Rock, Korn and other bits of pop-culture detritus that are beamed into the homes via satellite TV. There is only one paved road in Cross Lake--the one that leads in and out of town. There are no street signs or traffic lights. There is no hospital, no movie theater, no car dealership. In short, no business district.

The handful of basic commercial enterprises scattered about town somehow limp along. There is a general store/grocery, where a lawn mower sits on display above the produce shelf; a convenience store where you can buy a lot of Pepsi products but nary a bottle of juice; a construction company that provides 12 much-needed jobs; and a few modest family-run restaurants. There is one bar in town, which, like most of the businesses in Cross Lake, is owned by a non-Native--an absentee businessman from Winnipeg. Despite the bleak economy (or perhaps because of it), business at the Cross Lake Inn is always good. Too good. For the past few years, Pimicikamak leaders have lobbied the provincial liquor commission to have the bar's license revoked. So far, those efforts have failed.

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