A six-week occupation of a northern Manitoba hydro dam is over after First Nation protesters reached a deal for negotiations.
Protesters from Cross Lake First Nation have agreed to leave the site of the Jenpeg generating station after agreeing to talks that will address some key concerns including revenue-sharing, a shoreline cleanup and help with residential hydro bills that hover around $600 a month in the winter.
Cross Lake Chief Catherine Merrick said they also have a signed letter from Premier Greg Selinger agreeing to come to the community "as soon as practicable" to deliver a letter of apology for the harms caused by the dam.
"The agreement is a starting point for the work and talks to come rather than a conclusion," Merrick said in a statement. "The agreement is based on the acknowledgment that the northern hydropower system 'resulted in, and continues to result in, adverse effects on the lands, pursuits, activities and lifestyles of citizens of Pimicikamak'."
Hundreds of protesters from the First Nation north of Lake Winnipeg marched to the hydro dam on Oct. 16. The generating station continued to operate during the occupation, but protesters wouldn't let anyone in or out.
The band signed an agreement in 1977 after the Jenpeg dam was built, but Merrick said Manitoba Hydro and the provincial government didn't hold up their end of the bargain. Traditional lands are regularly flooded and none of the promised economic development and employment programs materialized, she said.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson, who is also responsible for Manitoba Hydro, said the negotiations will explore the implementation of the 1977 agreement. It will also look at ways to lower hydro bills on the First Nation, he said.
While the community lives in the shadow of the dam, the First Nation says many people have their electricity cut off because they can't afford to pay their bills.
"Many homes in the north are not energy-efficient and need upgrading to reduce their electricity consumption and lower their energy bills," Robinson told the legislature Friday. "Existing power-smart programs at Cross Lake will be extended to help address these challenges."
Jon Gerrard, Manitoba's lone Liberal MLA, said he visited Cross Lake a few weeks ago and the community was promised in the 1970s it would reap economic benefits from the dam.
"It's important to be vigilant and make sure that the commitments are actually met and we're able to increase the employment opportunities for the people of Cross Lake," he said.
Jenpeg, which cost $310 million to build, is about 525 kilometres north of Winnipeg and is key in Manitoba Hydro's northern electricity generation. The dam helps regulate the level of Lake Winnipeg, which has become swollen in recent years due to flooding. It also acts as a reservoir for other northern generating stations.