Occupation of hydro station in northern Manitoba appears set to come to end

WINNIPEG – A three-week occupation of a northern Manitoba generating station is set to come to an end.

Protesters from Cross Lake First Nation haven’t let Manitoba Hydro personnel in or out of the Jenpeg dam to protest what they say is a violation of their treaty rights. But Cross Lake Chief Cathy Merrick said Wednesday all sides have signed an agreement setting out negotiations to help resolve the dispute.

Once the agreement is finalized Friday and Premier Greg Selinger agrees to personally deliver an apology to the community, Merrick said the locks will come off the grounds of the generating station. Business should get back to normal at the dam “in the near future,” she said.

“The commitments in this memorandum of agreement bring us a measure of hope,” Merrick said in a statement. “We look forward to turning the commitments into major on-the-ground change. That is what our people need.”

Hundreds of protesters from the First Nation north of Lake Winnipeg marched to the hydro dam Oct. 16. The generating station is still operating but protesters haven’t let anyone in or out.

The protesters want a revenue-sharing agreement with Manitoba Hydro, as well as a public apology, a shoreline cleanup and help with residential hydro bills which hover around $600 a month in the winter. While the community lives in the shadow of the dam, Merrick said many people have their electricity cut off because they can’t afford to pay their bills.

Selinger has said he is willing to consider their demands, acknowledging the First Nation has long-standing concerns that need to be addressed. The government believes in a “spirit of reconciliation around these long-term flooding issues that happened decades ago,” he said shortly after the occupation began.

The band signed an agreement in 1977 after the Jenpeg dam was built, but Merrick says Manitoba Hydro and the provincial government haven’t fulfilled their obligations. Traditional lands are regularly flooded and none of the promised programs to “eradicate mass poverty and mass employment” has materialized, Merrick said.

Jenpeg, which cost $310 million to build, is about 525 kilometres north of Winnipeg and is key in Manitoba Hydro’s northern electricity generation. The dam helps regulate the level of Lake Winnipeg, which has become swollen in recent years due to flooding. It also acts as a reservoir for other northern generating stations.