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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Manitoba Hydro Power

Air Date: Week of

As the need for electricity continues to soar, some are looking to hydropower as a cheap and clean energy source. But plans to expand hydropower in Manitoba, Canada have divided a community of Cree Indians. Some say the fourteen dams used for hydro on Cree land have caused environmental damage, and no new deals should be made. But, as Mary Stucky of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium reports, others welcome the expansion and the potential for economic compensation.


KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. Hydropower is one of the cheapest and cleanest ways to generate electricity, but it does have a significant impact. In the Canadian province of Manitoba, dams built over the last three decades have damaged the land and destroyed the traditional lifestyle of Cree Indians there. Manitoba Hydro provides hydroelectric power for three provinces in Canada and parts of the United States. Now, with the demand for electricity increasing, the utility's biggest U.S. customer, Excel Energy, wants to buy additional power from the company. Some of the Cree people are against this and have enlisted activists from the U.S. to help. But as Mary Stucky of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium reports, other members of the tribe say the future lies in embracing new projects.

STUCKY: Every Thursday, protesters gather on the sidewalk outside the offices of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission in St. Paul.

MAN: It's information about where Minnesota gets its energy from, some of it...

STUCKY: The protest is against hydroelectric dams in northern Manitoba, Canada. The province of Manitoba lies just north of Minnesota and North Dakota. This fall, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will decide whether to allow a new contract between Excel Energy, based in Minneapolis, and Manitoba Hydro. While dams are a relatively inexpensive source of electricity for consumers, according to the Sierra Club's Anne Ostberg they're a disaster for the environment and the Cree Indians who live nearby. The Sierra Club is against purchasing power from Manitoba Hydro.

OSTBERG: I've always been a supporter of renewable energy, and I used to think that hydropower was renewable energy. And then last fall I learned that it's not. Large hydropower projects do serious environmental damage.

STUCKY: About ten percent of Excel's electricity now comes from Manitoba Hydro. That serves one-and-a-half million U.S. customers. Those who want to see an end to hydropower say it could be replaced with conservation, and energy alternatives like solar and wind power. The feasibility of that is fiercely debated, but both sides agree: hydro development has damaged the environment.

(Flowing water)

STUCKY: One place where that damage has been severe is here, some one thousand miles north of Minneapolis and across Lake Manitoba. This is the largest drainage area in North America, a vast network of rivers and lakes and a tremendous source of hydroelectric power.

(Thundering water)

STUCKY: In 1992, a 500-megawatt sale to Excel triggered the construction of the last dam built by Hydro. The new deal would provide 1,200 megawatts of additional electricity to five states in the upper Midwest. There are now 14 dams on or near Cree land, all built without the full approval of the Cree people, who say more than three million acres of their land were affected. As the water rose, river courses changed. Lakes dried up. Banks eroded. Water turned muddy. Animals from moose to birds vanished. Sandy Beardy is an 80-year-old Cree who lives in Cross Lake, a community of 5,000, and one of the hardest-hit.

BEARDY: Ever since the dam was built, all of this disappeared. The game. The birds of the air just passed by. They used to stop and feed. But they don't any more. The environment is totally destroyed. The things that we used to enjoy.

STUCKY: In 1977 the Cree negotiated the Northern Flood Agreement, or NFA, which promises to compensate the Indians for economic and social damages, and to clean up the environment. But the NFA quickly mired in legal wrangling and was virtually ineffective. Meanwhile, Cross Lake Cree member David Muswagon says they lost a subsistence lifestyle that had met all their needs.

MUSWAGON: You lived with nature. You lived with harmony, you know. And it gave you life.

STUCKY: But gradually, that life disappeared. A traditional healthy diet, rich in wild game and fresh produce, became high in sugar and fat. Diabetes is epidemic. There's been a rash of suicides. Kathy Merrick grew up in Cross Lake and says 90 percent of its residents are unemployed.

MERRICK: Like my dad, for example. He was an avid trapper. You know, I remember growing up, and he'd go out for the winter, you know. And he, you know, he'd come back with stories, stories of how good it felt to be out there, to be able to provide for the family. And now, you know, he hasn't worked, he doesn't have a job, he doesn't do anything except, you know, drink whenever to, I think that it's just to kill the pain.

STUCKY: Three hundred miles south of Cross Lake, in downtown Winnipeg, Victor Schroeder, Chairman of the Board of Manitoba Hydro, acknowledges what the power company did to the Cree people.

SCHROEDER: Certainly, if we were to do it over again it would not be done in the way that it was done. The basics can't be undone. How do we now go forward?

STUCKY: Manitoba Hydro is owned by the Canadian government. Gary Doer, the Premier of the province of Manitoba, says with the new board of directors at Hydro and his liberal government, the Cree will be treated fairly.

DOER: Our cabinet has already decided that there will not be any dams built unless there is economic opportunity for aboriginal people. That's a difference. That's a change. And long overdue.

STUCKY: While the Cross Lake Cree are holding out against the government and Manitoba Hydro, there are other bands of Cree in Manitoba who support going along with hydropower expansion. Four other bands have signed new agreements and received millions of dollars in compensation. There are already new jobs, houses, and roads. And according to Victor Spence of the Split Lake Cree, his band is negotiating a stake in any new dams.

SPENCE: We are doing it in a different way, a little more diplomatic, negotiating instead of the ways of confrontation and conflict.

STUCKY: But that's a sell-out, according to the Cross Lake Cree, who refuse to go along with any new deals. Cross Lake Cree leader Tommy Monias.

MONIAS: We're not asking for dollars. All we're asking is implementation of that agreement. Clean the debris. Clean the standing dead trees. Stabilize the shorelines. Yes, it will cost money, because that's what they said they're going to do.

STUCKY: Tommy Monias sees this as a question of right and wrong, and he's delighted to have allies south of the border who agree. But according to other Cree in Manitoba, activists and environmentalists from the United States have their own narrow agenda in mind. Joe Keeper is a Cree from the Norway House Band, which is dealing with Hydro. He has little time for the Twin Cities protest.

KEEPER: If the United States, people from the United States are that interested in our plight, why the hell didn't they come up here 35 years ago to help us? Right now, the Split Lake Cree and others are trying to work out an arrangement with Hydro so that they can get some benefits from their own land. Now if suddenly this is stopped, the people that are going to be hurt, in the final analysis, are the Cree.

STUCKY: Joe Keeper is reluctant to criticize the Cross Lake Cree, but says their refusal to negotiate is risky. The best course, according to Keeper, is to negotiate a settlement and come away with at least something. The alternative: to be stuck eternally in court. But for the Cross Lake Cree, land cannot be negotiated. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is expected to decide soon on the pending contract between Excel Energy and Manitoba Hydro. With the high-tech economy booming, it's predicted, without significant new sources of energy the Midwest demand for electricity will outstrip supply within ten years. For Living on Earth, I'm Mary Stucky in Manitoba, Canada.



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