In Northern Manitoba, late June is notable for two things: The daylight lingers until midnight; and there are an astonishing number of horseflies. On this day, in the midst of a vast wilderness of rivers, lakes, and forest, the noon sun is beating down with full force, a hot wind is blowing, and the horseflies are everywhere. But Charlie Osborne and Gideon McKay are indifferent to the attacking pests. Like their Cree Indian forebears, they have spent much of their lives fishing, hunting, and trapping (Osborne is 79 years old, McKay 75). So there's a chance that all that time in the bush imbued them with some special ability to disregard insects. It's a better guess, though, that they simply have bigger things on their mind. After all, they have just arrived at a place that has come to symbolize the harm that's befallen their people and their homeland in the last half of the 20th Century. What's a fly compared to that?
The two men are standing on the side of a gravel road just outside the Jenpeg Generating Station, one of five major hydroelectric power plants that are owned by the Manitoba province and sit along its largest river, the Nelson. The spot is 400 miles north of the Manitoba-Minnesota border and a 45-minute car ride from the nearest community, Cross Lake--where Osborne, McKay, and most of the other 5,876 members of the Pimicikamak Cree Nation live. While few residents of Cross Lake have cause to visit Jenpeg regularly, this place has loomed large over the Pimicikamak people--environmentally, politically, economically, and spiritually.
Osborne and McKay are among the shrinking number of Pimicikamak Cree old enough to remember clearly what this stretch of the Nelson River looked like before Jenpeg. Which is why they have come to this spot today: to tell.
Pulling down the visor on his "Indian and Treaty Days" baseball cap, Osborne peers through his thick eyeglasses and points to the big reservoir at the head of the Jenpeg dam. Before the construction of Jenpeg in the mid-Seventies, he explains in his native Cree, the river was much narrower at this spot--full of islands, rapids, and fish. You could catch an 80-pound sturgeon, enough to feed your family for a week, or net loads of whitefish. When the dam went up, everything changed: the rapids vanished; the rising water washed away islands; miles of shoreline were eroded; methyl mercury from the soil found its way into the river and, ultimately, the food chain.
Then there are the trees. More than two decades after Jenpeg's completion, huge piles of sun-bleached, half-rotted timber are still scattered throughout the river system, and there are countless "spiders" (the root systems from flooded-out trees) floating in the waters--all of which create hazards and headaches for Cree fishermen. Flood debris fouls their nets. Spiders cause damage to their boats and motors. Even worse, Osborne complains, is what has become of the fish themselves. The taste has changed, making him worry that the whitefish have lost the medicinal quality that has long made the species valuable to the Cree. "Before the project," Osborne says, using the term everyone in these parts uses to describe Jenpeg, "our way of life was beautiful. The project destroyed it. But the government doesn't want to believe what they've done to us."
Nine of us have made this trip from Cross Lake to Jenpeg: McKay, Osborne, a translator, and a fact-finding delegation from Minnesota led by Ken Bradley. Bradley, a 37-year-old activist (and former standup comedian), was hired in February by the St. Paul-based nonprofit Minnesotans for an Energy Efficient Economy (ME3), to draw attention to both the plight of the Pimicikamak and the problems posed by large-scale hydro projects.
Bradley knows that most Minnesotans have never heard of the Pimicikamak Cree Nation or Manitoba Hydro, the province-owned utility that operates Jenpeg. But he believes it's high time that changed. About 42 percent of the power generated by Hydro is exported to the U.S., chiefly to the Minneapolis-based utility Xcel Energy. According to an Xcel spokesperson, electricity from Manitoba Hydro constitutes about 12 percent of the company's sales in the Upper Midwest.
Since Canadian environmental regulations are less stringent than U.S. regulations, Bradley and other supporters of Pimicikamak argue, Xcel is exploiting an environmental loophole to import cheap hydro power. At the very least, they insist, Xcel should wield its considerable clout to prompt change.
A few months ago, Bradley kicked off a metro-wide advertising campaign, publicizing the phone number of Xcel CEO Wayne Brunetti and urging customers to call him to demand that the company rethink its reliance on Canadian hydro power. Bradley chuckles about the discomfort the ad reportedly caused in Xcel's corporate office, but he is serious about the message. "What really burns me about this is that Manitoba Hydro and Xcel represent this as green power," he says. Bradley likens Hydro to a sweatshop that uses child labor; the consequences of its production are not always evident to the consumers, he says. "[But] when consumers find out about it, I don't think they're going to be happy."
This is Bradley's first trip to northern Manitoba. The goal, he says, is simple. "It's one thing to tell people about the problem. It's another thing to say that you have actually seen it. To be able to say, 'I was there.' That gives us a lot more credibility."
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.
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."
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."
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.
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."
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."
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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