Damaged

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

All along, Manitoba Hydro has responded that the NFA was an unwieldy document that included provisions that were simply too broad and vague to satisfy. And in the early Nineties, the utility, along with the provincial and federal government, assumed a new tack. They negotiated a series of "implementation agreements" with those who had signed onto the NFA. Among other things, the implementation agreements promised cash payments as compensation for Hydro-related damages--an appealing prospect to people caught up in generations of grinding poverty. Between 1993 and 1997, four of the five Cree bands had signed up (the settlements, which range between 25 million and 78 million Canadian dollars, are still being paid out).

The Pimicikamak Cree chose not to participate, contending that the implementation agreements effectively eliminated some of the NFA's most significant provisions. "By any measure, the so-called implementation agreements in Manitoba are very bad," says Kate Kempton, a Toronto attorney who serves as counsel to the Pimicikamak Cree. "There are extensive indemnity clauses, where they're holding Hydro harmless, and in return they were offered lump-sum cash payment." Chief Miswagon believes the agreements represent little more than a divide-and-conquer strategy: "Our brothers and sisters have signed these agreements, yet they still have 80 percent unemployment. They're no better off than we are. All they have is a paved road to the welfare office."

Manitoba Hydro spokesman Glenn Schneider disputes such characterizations. "It's not simply a matter of buying out these communities. We're in a continuing relationship with them," he says. He notes that since the four NFA implementation agreements were signed, Cree leaders in those communities have spoken repeatedly of the benefits. "If the other first nations can come to an agreement with us, why can't Cross Lake?" he asks. "It's very puzzling to us."

In 1997, leaders in Cross Lake were close to signing their own implementation agreement, one valued at some 110 million Canadian dollars. At the same time, however, the Pimicikamak Cree Nation underwent a change in leadership, and it was decided that the NFA was a treaty and thus should not be altered. This newfound assertive spirit was soon played out in dramatic form.

When they signed on to the NFA, the Pimicikamak had been promised infrastructure improvements, including an all-weather road leading out of Cross Lake. A waterway on the outskirts of town had long been an impediment to easy travel. In winter, people simply drove their vehicles across the ice; in the warm months, they made use of a small cable-operated ferry. For more than a decade, the Pimicikamak had expected that a bridge would be built at the crossing. It never happened.

In March of 1998, semis carrying three 40-ton transformers were bound for a remote community just outside of Cross Lake. A group of 400 Cross Lake residents, returning from a hockey game on another reserve, came across the trucks at the ferry crossing. Their emotions already running high over the implementation agreements, they decided on the spot to set up a blockade.

Tommy Monias, who serves as a sort of secretary of state for the Pimicikamak Cree, remembers the encounter with glee. "One of our guys knocks on the [trucker's] door and he says, 'Use the bridge. You can't use the ferry.' The guy looks around, 'Did I miss something?'" Monias's face lights up. Of course, there was no bridge.

The standoff continued for weeks, much to the consternation of Hydro officials. Monias hastens to point out that the truckers themselves were well treated and no equipment was damaged. Hydro, meanwhile, regarded the action as illegal, but decided to wait it out and, in the words of spokesman Schneider, "let them have their day in the sun." The blockade broke up the following month, on May 8, when Hydro and the Canadian government signed a declaration that they would no longer pursue an implementation agreement with Cross Lake. Instead, they promised to work with leadership under the terms of the NFA. It was a galvanizing moment for the citizens of Cross Lake.

After the May 8 declaration, the Pimicikamak Cree adopted a slate of new laws. One explicitly prohibits leadership from signing any implementation agreement. Another, called the Hydro Payment Law, established a special trust fund to which residents were encouraged to send their monthly electrical bill. The money collected is counted against Hydro's as-yet-to-be-determined debt to the Pimicikamak nation. Those monies, as it turns out, have also been applied to the band's legal struggles with Manitoba Hydro, including a pending lawsuit over the legality of the trust fund itself.

"[The blockade] was the birth of the nation," Monias exclaims.

 

In December 2000, representatives of the Pimicikamak Cree appeared before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, unsuccessfully urging the agency to block Xcel Energy's application for a new purchase contract with Manitoba Hydro, currently worth about 114 million U.S. dollars per year. (The terms of the new contract have not been finalized, but according to Xcel spokesman Ed Legge, they will probably be "in the same ballpark.")

For the past two years, supporters of the Pimicikamak have introduced a resolution at Xcel's annual shareholders meeting, asking the utility to develop more environmentally friendly energy sources than hydroelectric power. The resolution was vigorously opposed by Xcel's board of directors. In a statement to shareholders, the company defended its dealings with Hydro, saying that Hydro had supplied Xcel with "clean, reliable, economical energy for more than 20 years." The "outstanding issues" with the people of Cross Lake, the statement continued, should be resolved in Canada. The resolutions both failed, getting less than ten percent of the shareholders' vote each time.

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