By Dave Baxter
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
A recent court ruling that the province did not properly consult First Nations communities before beginning work on a multimillion-dollar flood protection project in the Lake St. Martin area wasn’t news to The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC).
“It is no surprise to the AMC that the Government of Manitoba has not lived up to their constitutional duty to consult, concerning this channel project,” Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) Acting Grand Chief Cornell McLean said in a recent media release.
“In this era of reconciliation, it is no longer acceptable for any government to conduct assessments and grant approval for infrastructure construction without First Nations’ engagement.”
McLean’s comments come after the news last week that Chief Justice Glenn Joyal of the Court of Queen’s Bench, ruled the province did not live up to its constitutional duty to consult First Nations near Lake St. Martin, where the province is planning to build two channels to reduce flooding risks in the area.
As part of what was said to be preparatory work, the province issued a permit in 2019 for a right of way on Crown land to begin groundwater monitoring, tree clearing and other work, but the Interlake Reserves Tribal Council, which includes six communities in the area, said there was no discussion in advance of tree-clearing, and other work that was done.
Lawyers for the province, however, argued the government had started speaking with First Nations, and the clearing was part of the broader consultation process on the project, but Joyal ruled that clearing and other work done under the 2019 permit was not properly communicated before getting underway.
McLean said that no major projects in Manitoba that could affect Indigenous communities should ever go forward without Indigenous consultation.
“First Nations need to be full participants as it relates to the discussion on the potential environmental effects of the project, and any proposed measures,” he said.
“First Nations are equipped with first-hand and traditional knowledge vital to preventing or mitigating environmental damage.”
He said First Nations should also be involved and consulted, because it is often those communities that deal with negative effects when large infrastructure projects are undertaken in this province.
“Unfortunately, First Nations are most affected by environmental infrastructure projects, historically suffering the effects of inadequate engagement with changes to the traditional use of lands and resources, changes to the biophysical environment, and effects on fish and fish habitat, vegetation, and wildlife resources,” McLean said.
“AMC outlined in specific detail what the steps for adequate engagement are, and it is disappointing that, in this instance, it did not happen.”
In his ruling, Joyal said the province did not adequately communicate their plans for clearing in the area in “any meaningful way.”
The court battle is part of a larger dispute over the $600-million flood-prevention project, which would build two channels to drain high water from Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin into Lake Winnipeg. The Lake St. Martin area was severely flooded in 2011, forcing thousands from their homes.
The project has yet to be approved, as environmental regulators in Ottawa have questioned whether the Manitoba government has done enough to address First Nations concerns.
The province didn’t respond to requests from the Winnipeg Sun for comment on Monday.
With files from the Canadian Press
– 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.