Damaged

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

A few years later, Miswagon left Cross Lake. He moved to a neighboring community to attend high school, then on to Winnipeg for college. His tuition was paid for under a provision of the NFA--a unique distinction, according to Miswagon. "You are looking at the only person in this tribe of 6,000 who ever got his training and his job out of this flood agreement. I am the only one." For 14 years, Miswagon lived away from Cross Lake, working as a provincial game warden on Lake Winnipeg. By 1994 Miswagon was homesick. The local bank had an opening for a branch manager; he applied, got the job, and moved home.

At the time, Miswagon's personal life was a mess. As a boy growing up in Cross Lake, he had been exposed to the stereotypical temptations--whiskey and home brew. As an adult, he says, he became alcoholic. He sired three children out of wedlock. But, within a few years of his return to Cross Lake, he sobered up. In 1997 a number of citizens urged him to run for the executive council. "At the time, people were alarmed by the talk of implementation agreements. I didn't know the details, but I knew they weren't right." His commitment to the position netted him the most votes of any of the candidates for the council. Two years later he was elected chief.

In the years since, Miswagon's commitment to the NFA has intensified. He has high hopes for the future of Cross Lake, and thinks the NFA can be used to realize those hopes if Hydro and the provincial and federal governments accept their responsibilities. Citing the NFA's environmental provisions, he wants to force Hydro to undertake a massive environmental cleanup, one that would rely on the labor of people from Cross Lake. For the past three summers, Hydro has hired more than 200 Cree to collect and pile up the debris from the shorelines near Jenpeg and Sipiwesk Lake.

Lately Miswagon has been pushing a more ambitious plan: the construction of an electricity-generating incinerator to burn all the area's debris. That would mean jobs collecting and transporting timber, as well as employment at the plant. Maybe, he says, that could be a jumping-off point for commercial ventures that could be owned and operated by the citizenry; ventures that would keep dollars circulating in the community.

Miswagon acknowledges that Hydro has been unenthusiastic about the incinerator. The utility says the plan is impractical, and research shows that there is only enough debris to fuel the plant for a year. Miswagon is accustomed to such talk. "They handpick somebody to write a study, and then they say what they want them to," he shrugs. He is not deterred.

Cross Lake is a young and fast-growing community. Seventy-five percent of the population is under the age of 36. By the year 2022, the population is expected to double. Miswagon takes note of the special problems faced by Cross Lake's youth: the temptations they face, the failure of parenting, and the loss of traditions. "Today, instead of going camping for the weekend, we endure a three-day marathon of alcohol and drugs," he says. While most everyone in Cross Lake still speaks Cree, he has noticed a change with the kids. When he was a schoolchild, kids who spoke English at recess were frowned upon. Now that trend seems to have reversed. He says many of the parents in Cross Lake are spoiling their kids, spending what little money they have on frivolous items advertised on TV.

Still, Miswagon expresses an optimism for the future, and hope that the NFA can be made to work for Cross Lake. Sitting in his office, I am tempted to believe him. But I can't get the words of Gideon McKay out of my head. Before we left on our trip to Sipiwesk Lake, McKay took a moment to talk to the group of Minnesota visitors. "Once you destroy something, you destroy it forever," McKay said. And then he added: "We're a sick people. We're dying."

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