Skip to main content

The chief of a northern Manitoba First Nation says a report into the development of the hydro-electric industry decades ago only touches the surface when it describes allegations of sexual violence, racism and environmental degradation.

“Our experience is an open wound. The release of the report has triggered many emotions,” Chief Walter Spence of the Fox Lake Cree Nation said in a statement Wednesday.

“This affects us all ... I wonder if anyone is listening. We have never been silent and we have only missed someone to listen.”

Manitoba’s arms-length Clean Environment Commission held hearings earlier this year into the environmental and social effects of energy development between the 1950s and 1980s. The commission released its report on Tuesday, though it was dated May 2018.

In it, the commission said it heard the arrival of a largely male construction workforce led to the sexual abuse of Indigenous women.

“People spoke of construction workers getting them inebriated and then taking advantage of them. People spoke of witnessing rape and being unable to interfere,” the report said.

Some community members described how institutions – particularly the RCMP – meant to protect people at times failed to take local complaints seriously.

The commission said it heard from people who recounted being called “dirty Indians” and “wagon burners” at school as the population of the town of Gillam quickly ballooned from a few hundred to thousands.

The commission also heard about how the Nelson River, once a major transportation route, was disrupted by hydro dams and how forested areas were cleared to make way for construction sites and transmission lines.

Hydro development began around Fox Lake in 1966. There are now four power generating stations within Fox Lake’s traditional territory that generate nearly 3,800 megawatts of power. Fox Lake is one of the Cree partners with Manitoba Hydro on a new station set to open in 2021.

Kevin Hart, regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, said the report adds weight to what Indigenous people in northern Manitoba have long been saying. He wants to see a broader inquiry into the link between resource development and violence against Indigenous women.

“Injustices did occur, especially to our women,” he said Wednesday. “I truly believe that the women, when they come forward, should be entitled to compensation for what has occurred to them, especially for the trauma and everything.”

Hart said it’s not for him to say where compensation for the women should come from, but it should be determined by the courts.

Manitoba Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires has called the allegations disturbing and said Tuesday she is referring the issue to the RCMP.

Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said his group will be submitting the report to the federal inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women.

“Unfortunately there have been ongoing issues with both the RCMP and hydro development projects. The issues have come up throughout the inquiry and yet the inquiry’s limited mandate doesn’t deal with this recurring concern,” Dumas said in a statement.

Dumas said his group would reach out to the Manitoba government as well.

“We are willing to collaborate with the government and Manitoba Hydro in developing safety measures. We encourage the government and Manitoba Hydro to work diligently to ensure this doesn’t happen with future northern development initiatives in Manitoba.”

Interact with The Globe