Challenging the harms of hydroelectricity projects

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Image: Used with permission of Wa Ni Sak Tan: an alliance of hydro-impacted communities.

Ramona Neckoway is a professor at the University College of the North in Thompson, Manitoba. She is also a member of Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, a hydro-impacted community. Stephane McLachlan is a professor at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Both do research studying the impacts and implications of hydroelectricity projects on the environment and on Indigenous communities. Scott Neigh interviews them about Wa Ni Ska Tan, an alliance that brings together people from communities in Manitoba that have been impacted by hydroelectricity projects, as well as their supporters, for both action and research.

In the last two decades, industry has deployed increasingly extreme mechanisms to extract fossil fuels. From fracking to the tarsands, these forms of extraction are toxic, dangerous and of course contribute to the growing global climate crisis.

Given that, it is tempting to rush uncritically towards any energy source that brands itself as "green," "renewable," or "sustainable." In the Canadian context, by far the most developed approach that claims those labels is hydroelectricity -- that is, electricity produced via generators driven by flows of water. Around 60 per cent of Canada's electricity is hydro. In Manitoba, that number is 96.8 per cent.

Among most Canadians, hydro has a pretty green reputation. However, this benevolent image does not hold up if you actually go and talk to people who live in communities that bear the brunt of what hydro projects do.

The impact on the land is often devastating -- some lakes are de-watered, other areas are flooded, water flow patterns are altered using human-made channels, shorelines are radically reconfigured, water is contaminated and ecosystems are disrupted. The social, economic and cultural impacts on the local people can be profound. And of course, the impacted communities are frequently Indigenous. In terms of what they do to land and to people, many hydro projects belong in the same tradition of industrial colonialism as resource extraction projects like mining and fossil fuels.

Wa Ni Ska Tan is a Cree phrase meaning "rise up" or "wake up." Though a range of communities from across the province are involved in the alliance, its core work centres Cree communities in the north, including Neckoway's.

There is, of course, a fraught history when it comes to collaborations between academics and Indigenous communities, so it is a priority for the alliance to centre the communities and community members in decision-making and to emphasize equity in its operations.

The impacts of hydro projects in Manitoba have not been systematically documented since the 1970s, so that is one aspect of the alliance's work. People from impacted communities have made it a major priority for the alliance to use the resulting material (including the stories of residents) to educate decision-makers and to raise awareness and mobilize support among grassroots people elsewhere in the country.

The alliance also engages in other forms of research, documentary filmmaking, developing teaching resources, and providing support and mentorship for Indigenous youth. They work to get resources to communities and to create opportunities for cross-community relationship-building and collaboration.

Another key part of the alliance's work is creating opportunities for people from impacted communities to advocate directly with relevant regulators and decision-makers. And the alliance's next big event will be a gathering from November 8-10 in Winnipeg that will bring together people from hydro-impacted communities not only in Manitoba but from other parts of Canada and around the world.

Image: Used with permission of Wa Ni Sak Tan: an alliance of hydro-impacted communities.

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter


Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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