The silence of the dams: Manitoba Hydro's Keeyask dam

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Construction of the Keeyask dam. Image: Manitoba Hydro/Twitter

This is part one in a three-part series entitled "The silence of the dams: Canada's faux-green genocide." Read part two here and part three here

Across the land known as Canada, a growing number of Indigenous nations are under renewed attack by colonial governments conducting devastating invasions in the name of green energy and "reconciliation."

While forced relocations, flooding of traditional territories, destruction of traditional country food webs, a legacy of poisoned water, and criminalization of land and water defenders have a lengthy history, the 2020s represent a dangerous decade in which the growing demand for non-fossil fuel-based energy sources is being played off against the creation of national sacrifice zones in Indigenous territories.

Last summer, Manitoba Hydro began the flooding of 45 square kilometers of Cree lands at the massive Keeyask dam, which the energy utility acknowledges will result in "loss of inland and shoreline habitats." In addition:

"Birds and animals will be displaced from flooded areas. …[There will be] changes to traditional harvesting areas and travel routes on both water and land, a loss of culturally significant areas, and there is a potential for loss of unknown heritage resources."

In a sickening new twist, this was done in the name of solemnly acknowledging the genocidal acts it was about to undertake. The massive energy utility explained in a press release:

"Manitoba Hydro recognizes and values that Cree culture, spirituality and wellbeing is grounded in respecting the relationship and balance between people, land and water, and all other living things, and that [dam] impoundment and its impacts cannot be separated from the larger environment."

A glossy handout from Manitoba Hydro takes great efforts to claim that these losses are "being acknowledged," which appears to be the new governmental rationale for invading and destroying Indigenous nations. Because "cultural ceremonies" have been held at the Keeyask site "to acknowledge the changes to the environment and surrounding ancestral lands," Manitoba Hydro seems to conclude that these devastating changes are in fact beneficial.

Gaslighting partnerships

Beneath the noble sounding, gaslighting language of "partnerships" and "honour" is a very different reality. Earlier this year, Tataskweyak Cree Nation (TCN) asked the United Nations to undertake action to fix the nation's drinking water, which has been under a water advisory since 2017. Among the reasons the water is undrinkable is because of the presence of cyanobacteria, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control note are "are among the most powerful natural poisons known."

In a support letter, NDP MP Niki Ashton reminded the UN that "many First Nations across the country are unable to comply with public health directives, as clean water is not available from the tap. Again, First Nations have been forced to pay the price of Canada's inaction."

TCN, along with Curve Lake First Nation and Neskantaga First Nation, are all part of a class action lawsuit against Canada for "failing to address prolonged drinking-water advisories on First Nations reserves across Canada."

Last summer, a number of Indigenous women from TCN occupied a piece of land that was about to be flooded. It hosted the sacred site of a monument to Leon Kitchekeesik, who at age 7 fell through the Nelson River ice and whose remains were never found. A monument had been placed at the last place loved ones had seen Leon, and while community members did plan on moving the monument to higher ground, the Keeyask dam builders began plans to flood the area around the sacred site, and, without checking in with the community, removed the memorial and put it into storage.

Leon's sister, Marilyn Mazurat, told CBC that "We needed our time with Leon. My heart broke because it was like losing him all over again. I was so angry. They basically desecrated his resting place."

Manitoba Hydro wrote to MP Niki Ashton -- who had raised concerns regarding impoundment while the families were gathered in the flood zone -- that it "acknowledges that the removal of Leon's cross is a deeply emotional and difficult process for the family, and we have taken care to demonstrate understanding and respect in all interactions on this matter."

Members of Leon's family called for the memorial cross to be returned to its original home, "Leon's Island," declaring they would move it when they were ready to do so, and a more suitable location could be prepared. To prevent any further desecration, family members occupied the area to try and prevent the flooding. They asked Manitoba Hydro to delay flooding, but the utility refused.

Janet McIvor, another of Leon's siblings, referenced a Keeyask Dam site sign that included the word respect. "Why are they writing that word when they haven't shown respect to us? They should remove that sign."

Colonial divide and rule

I spoke with a group of TCN members the night the occupation began. Impoundment of Keeyask had already begun, and there were urgent messages being sent to Manitoba Hydro to stop, as any further release of waters could drown Leon's loved ones. Crowded around a cell phone, community members shared their stories about the lack of consultation, their frustration at being treated as mere tokens, and the rifts that had been created in the community by the colonial corporation's divide-and-rule gamesmanship. 

An example of Manitoba Hydro's wolf-in-sheep's-clothing approach was holding ill-attended meetings where it acknowledged in advance of this project that there would be significant harmful effects.

Meg Sheehan of the Northeast MegaDam Resistance Coalition noted "because of Hydro's unaccountable and dangerous practices, the water and fish in their lakes is unfit for consumption and dangerous for swimming, with anyone going into the water suffering a punishing skin reaction."

Sheehan pointed out that in addition to the significant impact on traditional ways of life and the country food web at a time of major food insecurity, Manitoba Hydro adds insult to injury by sending exorbitant hydro bills that are beyond the reach of community members.

"Imagine someone who never gave their consent to Hydro to invade their lands now receiving a monthly bill that can be over $1,000 just because they use some of the energy that was, in many respects, stolen from right out under them," she said.

Notably, Keeyask was initiated by the former NDP government of Gary Doer, who at the time exulted that ""hydroelectricity is Manitoba's oil." Such green energy triumphalism, however, cannot hide the devastating impacts of megadams, especially on the Indigenous peoples disproportionately impacted.

Blood megawatts

Across Canada, the construction and operation of megadams has caused and will cause even more methylmercury poisoning of traditional country foods relied upon by local communities. Canadian dam builders have a similarly destructive record around the globe.

Electricity from large (over 30 MW) hydrodams is dirty energy, what Sheehan calls "blood megawatts." Science shows they are a major source of methane, a greenhouse gas accelerant far more dangerous than carbon dioxide. They destroy Indigenous cultures, biodiversity, and carbon-sequestering forests. They have disrupted and disturbed millennia-old migratory patterns of fish and other wildlife that make up the country food webs of millions of people worldwide.

The 1997 report of the World Commission on Dams concluded:

"At the heart of the dams debate are issues of equity, governance, justice and power...In too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure [dams'] benefits, especially in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities downstream, by taxpayers and by the natural environment."

During last summer's standoff at Leon's Island, Manitoba Hydro was eventually forced to back down on impoundment until the family could gather one last time at the sacred site. Canadian Mennonite magazine interviewed Mazurat shortly afterward. She said at the time, "I have a hard time accepting the fact that the next time I go down it won't be there. All that I've known and loved will all be under water." 

The $13.4 billion Keeyask dam, like its brother dams at Site C and Muskrat Falls, is an exorbitant financial sinkhole, known to locals as "Keeyask-atraz" for workers because of "a prison-like environment plagued by fear, intimidation, drug and alcohol abuse and discrimination."

A report from the province's Clean Environment Commission described the effects of the Manitoba Hydro man camps that invaded northern Manitoba beginning in the 1960s and the subsequent epidemic of sexual abuse against Indigenous women. The report authors heard from many members of Makeso Sakahikan Inninuwak (aka Fox Lake Cree Nation), including Franklin Arthurson, who testified that his late wife had endured a decade of residential school abuse only to return to her occupied homeland: "She came home from a hellhole called residential school to another hellhole called Hydro project."

"They just came in and took over. We were pushed aside," Marie Henderson told the hearing. "It even got to the point where they said we were squatters in our own land, because they wanted the construction to be built."

The report also quoted a member of the Tataskweyak Cree Nation who "stated that in the pre-development era, residents had everything they needed. Fish were abundant, the water was healthy, and the land was teeming with wildlife. The community was self-sufficient. She recalled how community members had been promised that hydroelectric development would bring them low-cost electricity. Now, she said, the water is polluted; the cost of power, astronomical. She felt that Manitoba Hydro played with people like a 'predatory animal.'"

The predatory animal known as Manitoba Hydro has played a significant role in promoting similarly devastating projects like Labrador's notorious Muskrat Falls megadam. An inquiry into the Muskrat Falls disaster concluded that a key report commissioned by Manitoba Hydro was "plainly and obviously improperly influenced and biased in favour of the project."

Part two of this series will explore the controversy of Muskrat Falls.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. "national security" profiling for many years.

Image credit: @ManitobaHydro/Twitter

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