By Dave Baxter
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) has called out Manitoba Hydro for what he said is “neglect and failure” when it comes to Hydro’s efforts to get power back up and running in two First Nations communities.
But a Hydro spokesperson says it is the terrain in the area, and the lack of roads that have contributed to the length of time it is taking to get power back up and running.
“The 1,500 citizens of Little Grand Rapids and Pauingassi continue to languish in hotel rooms in Winnipeg due to Manitoba Hydro’s neglect and failure to expedite the restoration of power to these First Nations,” AMC Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said in a Monday press release.
The press release comes almost two months after Little Grand Rapids First Nation and nearby Pauingassi First Nation were both evacuated due to July wildfires, which destroyed 90 hydro poles in the area.
Both communities, which sit approximately 280 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, are waiting for power to be restored, leaving many residents in hotel rooms in Winnipeg, and keeping students out of school as the new school year begins.
“The people are becoming traumatized by this neglect and having to stay in single hotel rooms with as many as five other family members,” Dumas said.
Dumas also claimed in his statement that he believes that no non-First Nation communities in Manitoba would ever be forced to deal with their power being out for this long.
“If this were a situation involving a non-First Nation community, a declaration of emergency would have been made and no expense would be spared to accommodate and comfort community members, including providing generators and other emergency equipment so that people can be safely repatriated,” Dumas said.
Dumas also claims that Hydro has not been upfront with or communicated properly with AMC and local community leaders about the progress of the work.
“Manitoba Hydro was not forthcoming with information to the leaderships and did not have the courtesy to update or advise the AMC on progress towards replacing the hydro poles,” Dumas said.
Manitoba Hydro spokesperson Scott Powell, while speaking to the Winnipeg Sun on Tuesday, said that claims of neglect and a lack of communication from Hydro are simply not true, but instead it is the area they are working in that has led to the amount of time needed to get the power back up and running.
“We appreciate the difficulty people are facing being out of their homes for this length of time, and we are doing absolutely everything we can to restore that service as quickly as possible,” Powell said. “And to say otherwise simply is not accurate.”
“There is absolutely no road access in this area so we aren’t able to drive trucks in, we aren’t able to haul poles in with trucks, we’re just not able to do a lot of the stuff we would do in a road-access area.
“We have to fly everything in, we fly in all the equipment and crews, and that is what has complicated the repairs.”
Powell added that because of the terrain in the area they need specialized equipment to get hydro poles set in the ground in many cases.
The fires originally knocked out 90 hydro poles in the area, and Powell said as of Tuesday 57 have been replaced.
He said they expect the work to be done in the next “three to five weeks, weather dependent.”
Powell also said that claims there has not been communication from Hydro when it comes to making local leaders aware of the process are inaccurate.
“One of the things raised was there has been no communication, and I can’t emphasize enough that simply is not true. We have been talking and continue to talk with community leadership,” Powell said.
“We have been providing regular written updates to leaders in the communities as well as the AMC throughout the restoration process, and we have consistently communicated with leadership.
“To say otherwise is simply not accurate.”
-Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.