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

As is the case with many of Canada's other reserves (and with Indian reservations in the United States), stark reminders of the messy, desperate lives led by many of Cross Lake's inhabitants can be discerned from the raw statistics. For generations, the unemployment rate has been high. Today it hovers around 85 percent. Most of the reserve's residents get by on welfare; on average, says Chief Miswagon, those payments amount to less than seven Canadian dollars a day. Alcohol and drug abuse is epidemic. Over the past 15 years, there have been two major waves of suicide: nine people in 1988, seven in 1999.

This death rate is particularly shocking since, before 1976, there had never been a recorded suicide in Cross Lake, according to Bob Brightnose, the community wellness coordinator. In an attempt to respond to the suicide crisis in 1999, community leaders installed a special hotline and expanded counseling services. To date, the hotline has received more than 17,000 calls. And while reports of suicide attempts are still inordinately high (there were 248 last year), the body count has dropped: In 2001, there was one successful suicide. Ironically, the hotline program was nearly a victim of its own success. Last year, deeming the crisis abated, Health Canada, the federal healthcare administration, withdrew its funding; now the program is operated out of the band's coffers.

Few people in Cross Lake attribute all their woes to Manitoba Hydro. But almost everyone, including Brightnose, believes that Jenpeg exacerbated and accelerated the community's downfall. "It's like a fire that's smoldering. We've had generations of abuse. Sexual abuse. Physical abuse. We've got people drinking hair spray and aftershave," he says. "But the common denominator seems to be cultural bankruptcy. Basically, people are just lost."

Michelle Gunderson

When Jenpeg went into operation in the mid-Seventies, Brightnose points out, the physical landscape was dramatically altered. Beauty was lost. The waterways upon which the Cree relied for both sustenance and transportation were suddenly unfamiliar. In the winter, fluctuating water levels made travel on the ice difficult; in the summer, debris rendered boating hazardous. In Cross Lake itself, the Jenpeg dam caused water levels to drop as much as 12 feet, drying up parts of the lake. In the Eighties, the commercial fishery collapsed and people drifted from the outdoor-centered activities that had been a hallmark of Cree life for centuries.

"Hydro was the straw that broke the camel's back," Brightnose concludes. "That's why we feel it's important that they're part of the solution."


In the summer of 2001, an international panel of religious leaders convened in Cross Lake and Winnipeg to hear testimony about the effects of hydro development on the people of northern Manitoba. In the end, the panel produced a document titled "Let Justice Flow: Report of the Interchurch Inquiry Into Northern Hydro Development."

"The un-tallied cost of electricity production in northern Manitoba has been two decades of extensive environmental destruction, violation of human rights, and even the loss of life," the panel concluded. "For Manitoba Hydro, the governments, and consumers the Project is a success, but in northern Manitoba it constitutes an ecological, social, and moral catastrophe."

Prior to the issuance of the interchurch inquiry's report, the problems associated with hydro development were hardly a secret in Manitoba. Royal commissions had acknowledged the damage done to the environment and the Cree. Scientific panels had examined the effects on the fisheries and other wildlife. And in the early Nineties, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation produced a devastating series of televised reports on the true cost of Hydro. One of the most common complaints: that Manitoba Hydro and the provincial and federal government had failed to make good on promises to the first nations (the Canadian term for Indian reservations) of northern Manitoba.

By all accounts, when Manitoba Hydro began building the first of its dams in the northern part of the province in the early Sixties, it largely ignored the people who would be most affected. By the early Seventies, the members of five Cree bands, including the Pimicikamak, demanded a seat at the table. But even then, says Chief Miswagon, Hydro did not accurately disclose the extent of the project's impact: "In the early Seventies, a fairly respected Hydro official came here and told the elders, 'You will be compensated. First and foremost.' And then they said, 'Your water will not fluctuate more than the length of this pencil.' In the decades that have followed, we've come to know that pencil to be eight feet long."

Nonetheless, the leaders of the five Cree bands, Manitoba Hydro, the province, and the federal government began negotiations. In 1977 all the parties signed a document called the Northern Flood Agreement (NFA), which broadly outlined a governmental commitment to mitigate environmental damage and assist the affected communities in their recovery. The NFA also created an arbitration process that would allow people to seek compensation for injury, loss of property, and even death. Since the agreement was signed, there have been complaints that Hydro and the government have deliberately and consistently dragged their feet.

In 1996 the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples concluded that the history of the NFA has been "marked by little or no action in implementation of NFA requirements." Three years later, in testimony before parliament, Warren Allamond, a former federal Minister of Indian Affairs and original signatory to the 1977 agreement, criticized the government for its failures to satisfy its NFA obligations. "After 21 years," he said, "virtually nothing has been done."

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