Dams built decades ago in an era of relatively lax environmental rules have significantly disrupted the flow of water on the Saskatchewan River and the aboriginal way of life, particularly the fishery on the river. Now, Saskatchewan is preparing to grant licences that would continue that disruption in perpetuity.
The leaders of the Cumberland House Cree First Nation are not asking for the E.B. Campbell dam, which is about 100 kilometres upriver from their community, and the Nipawin dam, which is 60 kilometres beyond that, to be shut down or dismantled – although it might come to that if the effects cannot be mitigated any other way.
Rather, they want a full consultation before in-perpetuity licences are approved. They want to do their own study on how the dams will further impede their ability to exercise their treaty rights to hunt, trap, fish and enjoy their traditional way of life – which they say were already eroded during the E.B. Campbell dam's half century of operation.
"I think they are owed the duty to have a process that rigorously and credibly examines the potential adverse impacts of the continuation of the E.B. Campbell dam on the nation's treaty rights," said their lawyer, Tim Dickson, "and that is what the nation believes has not at all been adequately done to date."
Saskatchewan's Water Security Agency (WSA), the provincial relicensing body, said in an e-mail that renewing the dams' licence does not require extensive consultations because the potential adverse effects on treaty rights "are minor in nature."
The WSA also said it is not required to consult with the First Nation regarding prior or continuing problems posed by the dams, only issues that could create "novel" impacts – as per a 2010 decision of the Supreme Court. The existing effects are widespread.
The Cumberland House Cree First Nation relied on the Saskatchewan River for sustenance when fish were abundant and moose and muskrat were plentiful in the river's wetlands.
The muskrat left and the moose numbers dwindled when the dams changed the wetlands' seasonal rhythms. Those facts are not disputed. And, because water flow varies depending on provincial electrical requirements, the river can rise and fall significantly in a few hours, leaving fish floundering on its bed.
Recently, "the level dropped so much that a lot of boats were stranded and the people had to take fish by hand and try to get them back into the water – any of the ones that they saw could be alive," said John Desjarlais, the chief executive officer of the Cumberland House Cree Nation Development Corporation. "Some of them, they couldn't recover. They were just lost, wasted."
The E.B. Campbell dam went into service in 1963, before the federal or provincial governments required environmental assessments. In 1986, it was granted a 50-year licence dated retroactively to its first day of operation. No environmental assessment was done at that time, nor was one conducted when the Nipawin went into service in 1985.
Norman Smith of the University of Nebraska has been studying the Saskatchewan River delta – the largest inland delta in Canada – for decades. He said the dams reduced the amount of water flowing into the wetlands in the summer and increased it in the winter, which makes them inhospitable for much of the wildlife. And, he said, the fast-moving water downstream is eroding the main channel, making it wider and deeper, which stops the natural flooding that replenishes the region.
The worst effects can be seen in the 80 kilometres of river immediately downstream from the E.B. Campbell dam, but that will extend as the dams continue to operate, he said.
In 1987, downstream residents, including Cumberland House Cree Nation and the village of Cumberland House, reached an agreement with the power company that recognized some of the damage from SaskPower facilities. It provided the First Nation and the village with a settlement of $1-million. Saskatchewan made other economic development promises, some of which were never kept.
Mr. Desjarlais said the First Nation did not understand what the long-term effects of the dams would be when it signed that deal and the compensation did not come close to addressing the actual impact. The First Nation also wants assurances it will have opportunities to address unforeseen future issues. And it wants money to conduct its own research to help determine its position on the licences.
In July, Dan Johnston, an aboriginal affairs consultant with SaskPower, said in a letter to Rene Chaboyer, chief of the Cumberland House Cree Nation, that the power company would not provide the $128,896 the First Nation had requested for such a study.
SaskPower is relying on its own research, the exact nature of which it said it will not disclose to The Globe and Mail.
First Nation leaders say the power company is basing its assertions about the dams' future effects on research it funded at the University of Saskatchewan. Primarily, they say, it relies on the findings of Tim Jardine, a biology professor who conducted a study in 2012 of the ways to preserve biodiversity in the Saskatchewan River Delta.
Dr. Jardine wrote in September to Mr. Johnston at SaskPower to state firmly that his work was never intended to constitute a formal consultation.
SaskPower subsequently wrote to Mr. Chaboyer saying that, while Dr. Jardine's work is "relevant and useful in this consultation," the power company also wants to meet with the people of the First Nation to discuss the effects on treaty rights.
Mr. Desjarlais says the company wants a meeting in the community only to be able to say a consultation has taken place.
As it stands, Mr. Desjarlais said, the in-perpetuity licence means that when future unforeseen problems arise "there is no mechanism for us to say 'will we be heard, can we discuss impacts?' and 'how it's going to affect the community, how it's going to affect the treaty rights of the Cumberland House Cree Nation?'"