By Sarah Lawrynuik
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
WINNIPEG-Representatives for two northern First Nations are asking the provincial government to deny approval for a permanent Manitoba Hydro permit that allows the utility considerable flexibility in manipulating two rivers.
In the 1970s, Hydro diverted water from the Churchill River into the Nelson River at Southern Indian Lake, in order to increase its generating capacity along the Nelson. The diversion caused devastating and ongoing impacts to the environment along both river basins, and ripple effects in the First Nations communities throughout the region.
Operation of the diversion began in 1976, on an interim licence issued under the Water Power Act. The move caused the water level of Southern Indian Lake to rise by approximately three metres.
In 1986, Manitoba Hydro was given permission to increase the amount of water the utility diverted from the Churchill River by 15 per cent. What has become known as the augmented flow program now allows the Crown corporation to raise and lower the water level of Southern Indian Lake by as much as three to 4.5 feet.
Temporary approval permits have been repeatedly reapproved on an annual basis for three-and-a-half decades.
“They want the terms of the augmented flow program, in essence, to carry on permanently through a final licence into the future. To us, that’s a death sentence,” said Les Dysart, community lead on hydro issues for O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation, approximately 130 kilometres northwest of Thompson, on the shores of Southern Indian Lake.
The impacts on fish populations and high levels of mercury in the traditional food source are of principal concern in the region.
For O-Pipon-Na-Piwin, whitefish is a critical species; for Tataskweyak Cree Nation (about 150 km northeast of Thompson), sturgeon is a particularly important species that has been impacted by ongoing river alterations.
“The government has allowed Hydro to take the sturgeon on the Churchill River to the brink of extinction. We need (Conservation and Climate) Minister (Sarah) Guillemard to stop the augmented flow program and operate (the diversion) in a way that ensures the full protection and survival of the endangered Churchill River sturgeon,” said Tataskweyak band councillor Robert Spence.
“We share the same fate as the sturgeon.”
Tataskweyak is currently pursuing a research project to establish sturgeon numbers are continuing to fall, decades after the first disturbance of the river. The partial goal is to have the species recognized as locally endangered.
A spokesperson for Manitoba Hydro referred all questions on the topic to the provincial government, but said the Crown corporation applied in 2009 for the final permit that would allow status quo operations to continue.
Via email, a spokesperson for Guillemard said: “The minister is reviewing the consultation summary materials and will make a licensing decision very soon, with a commitment to ongoing engagement with Indigenous communities.”
However, the representatives from both First Nations objected to meaningful consultation having been pursued ahead of the decision.
“I was active in assisting the First Nation in 2010, and that was the first formal communication we received from the province.
And for the last 11 years, there’s just been a series of meetings to try and start consultation… Manitoba seems to imply all the time that this is somehow meaningful,” said Dysart.
Sarah Lawrynuik is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Free Press. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.