Damaged

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

Jim Alders, an Xcel manager for regulatory administration in Minneapolis, acknowledges that Manitoba Hydro has had an impact on northern communities. He argues, however, that "the power generated by Manitoba Hydro is in compliance with the laws of the land." What's more, Alders points out, some of the first nations are actively supporting Hydro export sales to the U.S., and two of those communities recently reached agreements with Hydro that will make them partners in new hydro developments. That, Alders says, puts Xcel "between a rock and a hard place" in terms of taking any action on the complaints of Cross Lake.

To the Pimicikamak and their supporters, that's a copout. They maintain that if Manitoba Hydro operated under U.S. environmental laws, a massive cleanup would be mandated. Given federal requirements governing large-scale dam projects in the U.S. (and a growing consensus about their adverse impact), they also believe that further industrial development on the Nelson would be deemed out of the question. "It's our position that Xcel should simply apply the same standards that would be applied in the U.S. This [electricity] is being shipped out through a huge environmental loophole," says Will Braun, the Pimicikamak's Canadian campaign coordinator. "Xcel is the largest customer of Manitoba Hydro. They should be a very influential party, because Hydro needs Xcel much more than Xcel needs Hydro."

Hydro spokesman Schneider, meanwhile, accuses the Pimicikamak leaders and their supporters of misleading the public in an effort to get more leverage in negotiating outstanding NFA claims. "People should recognize that they're not getting the whole truth. [The Pimicikamak leadership] is trying to make it uncomfortable for Xcel to deal with us."

Michelle Gunderson

Schneider maintains that the Pimicikamak have overstated the degree of environmental degradation and understated Hydro's efforts to address it. He is particularly pointed when complaining about the Cree's tendency to attribute social problems at Cross Lake to hydro development. In the years after World War II, he says, the lives of the aboriginal people across the north changed radically: Children were separated from their families and shipped off to residential schools; Native religious practices were discouraged; and welfare dependency became the norm. "Most people who have a thoughtful perspective on these matters understand that you can't blame all the social inequities on Hydro," he says. "But sometimes the facts are a casualty of the need to tell a compelling story."

 

It is July First. Canada Day--or, as it is known here, Pimicikamak Cree Nation Day. People are starting to gather along the Cross Lake waterfront. There are a lot of activities scheduled: a parade, a ten-kilometer run, a series of canoe races, ball games. A fireworks display is planned for the night. Chief Miswagon steps up onto a plywood platform and grabs a microphone. He explains that he will now preside over a new tradition: the raising of the Pimicikamak Cree Nation flag.

The flag features an eagle alighting, with four stars to represent the four councils of the government: the elders council, the youth council, the women's council, and the executive council. The chiefs of those four councils have joined Miswagon on the platform, from where he tells the assembled crowd of the "need to protect what is left," and then extols what he calls the seven laws of indigenous culture--including virtues of love, respect, and humility. As he wraps up his remarks, there is a round of handshaking, hugs, and applause.

Afterward, Miswagon grabs a quick lunch and then retires to his office on the second floor of the Walter F. Monias Administration Building for an interview. He kicks his stocking feet up on the desk. A former game warden for Manitoba's department of natural resources, Miswagon is a big, barrel-chested man. Thirty-eight years old, he is part of the generation of Pimicikamak who entered adolescence just as Hydro was constructing Jenpeg--a generation that came of age as Cross Lake was transformed.

The youngest of 13 children, he was raised by his mother, Maggie Miswagon, a traditional Cree woman who was highly suspicious of modernity. Aside from a few staples like pasta and rice, she eschewed processed foods. "Never ate a slice of bread in her life," her son brags. "She would never drink tap water." As a result, the Miswagon family lived and dined more traditionally than many other families in Cross Lake. In the winter, they ate caribou, rabbit, and moose; in the summer, baked and broiled whitefish. As a boy, Miswagon spent the summer days with his older brothers, fishing. He remembers those times fondly. Like many families in Cross Lake, the Miswagons relied on welfare, which paid for the ammunition and fuel needed to get fish and game.

Then, in 1978, his life took a turn. His older brother Tommy, who was working as a commercial fisherman, went out by himself one day and never returned. His body was found 13 days later. Because there were no witnesses, Miswagon was never certain about the cause of the accident. Perhaps his brother struck some floating debris or a reef. That, he says, would have entitled the family to making a claim for compensation under the NFA. But Maggie wouldn't countenance such a thing. "When we were at the funeral, she said, 'You will have forgiveness in your heart.' It was only after many years that I realized what she was talking about," Miswagon says. "No matter what we did, no matter how much money we got, it would not be worth it. There would be no way we could bring my brother back."

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