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40 Years in, Manitoba Apologizes to First Nations for Hydropower Dam Flooding

The Premier of Manitoba formally apologized to Cross Lake First Nation for flooding its lands for hydroelectric dam.
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It took more than 40 years, but finally on January 20 the premier of Manitoba apologized to Pimicikamak Cree Nation for flooding its lands for the Jenpeg hydroelectric dam.

Known as Cross Lake First Nation, the band had protested Manitoba’s periodic flooding of its lands with a six-week occupation last year starting on October 16, 2014, CBC News reported. The system inundates 25 square miles of the Pimicikamak’s traditional lands, damaging valuable habitat, the band said in a press release quoted by CBC News. And on January 20 the province finally acknowledged the damage on a trip to the fly-in-only community located 326 miles north of Winnipeg.

“The effects are more than just those on land and water and on plants and animals,” Premier Greg Selinger said, according to the Canadian Press. “We recognize that hydro development can affect the cultural identities of aboriginal peoples because of the close relationship of aboriginal peoples to the land and resources.”

The October protest ended when the province and Manitoba Hydro, the dam operator, agreed to negotiate revenue sharing, plan for environmental cleanup and help supplement the First Nation’s own electricity bills, which can reach $600 per month in the coldest time of year, the Canadian Press said. That is also when the province agreed to deliver the formal apology.

"Looking back at what has happened, and on the effects on aboriginal communities in Manitoba, I wish now on behalf of the Government of Manitoba to express my sincere apology to aboriginal peoples affected by hydro development," said Selinger at a ceremony attended by 200 people from Cross Lake.

While the apology was welcomed, Cross Lake Chief Catherine Merrick said that more was needed.

“The apology does not fix the past. It does not even fix the present,” Merrick said, according to the Canadian Press. “Our lands, waters and resources are still a mess. Our people still lack a fair share of the opportunity generated by the river. Our people still have to face debilitating hydro bills.”

The Northern Flood Agreement signed by the Pimicikamak and other First Nations with the province in 1977, before the dam opened, have not been honored, Merrick said. The prevalent poverty and high unemployment that the government promised to eradicate remains. The unemployment rate on the 8,240-population First Nation is 80 percent, CBC News said.

Selinger issued the apology to all of them, including Tataskweyak Cree Nation, York Factory First Nation, Fox Lake Cree Nation and War Lake First Nation, he said in a statement.

“We continue to be committed to working with Aboriginal communities affected by our development and operations in a spirit of reconciliation,” said Manitoba Hydro president and CEO Scott Thomson in the premier’s statement.

While Deputy Premier Eric Robinson noted that several mitigation initiatives have been undertaken, he acknowledged that it was merely a start.

“The apology statement released today builds upon the ministerial statement and a number of other important government actions since then,” he said in the province’s statement. “We acknowledge there is more work to be done with First Nations towards further reconciliation.”

During the October protest, Merrick herself served an eviction notice to Manitoba Hydro, ordering the staff off the premises, according to the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN).

"An apology doesn't mean much to me, to us. We need the implementation of the NFA to eradicate mass poverty and mass unemployment," said Merrick, quoted by CBC News at the ceremony. "This is what the people want, not just an apology—something to live on. Something to survive on."