East Side road out of reach

Posted on April 28th, 2006

By Eric Robinson

Source: Winnipeg Free Press

REGARDING the April 9 article, “East Side going down the wrong road,” it’s unfortunate that the myth that a hydro line will naturally lead to an all-weather road continues to be propagated and that once again, I have to wade in on the issue.

As I have said before, a hydro line does not guarantee an all-weather road Although this government is supportive of the construction of an all-weather road network to serve isolated First Nations communities, this is not an initiative that the communities and the province can take on alone. Since the release of the East Side road scoping study by former transportation minister Steve Ashton, Manitoba has been lobbying the federal government for its support for this project, which is anticipated to cost about a half billion dollars.

In considering construction of any new hydro-electric transmission line along the east side of Lake Winnipeg, our government embarked on historic discussions with 16 East Side communities. During the course of these meetings with community members, many residents were not supportive of East Side transmission lines and many others had strict conditions including ownership of the line itself.

Although some northern communities have seen ownership of the transmission line as a way of funding community development priorities, Manitoba Hydro has said it must own its transmission lines for both regulatory and security reasons. Future new hydro-generation projects, not transmission projects, offer real economic opportunities for First Nations. And hydro has committed to partnering with First Nations on new generation projects that offer opportunities for training, long-term employment, income streams, input into dam designs and long-term business contracts. Transmission projects do not offer similar benefits. To date, Manitoba Hydro, Canada and Manitoba have committed $60 million to pre-project training for generation projects, such as Waskwatim.

Many East Side First Nations have also told us they do not support a transmission line going through their communities. They are also concerned about the impact that a hydro transmission line would have on their traditional and cultural ways of life as sustained by the forest in that region. Those views resulted in a decision to find an alternative to building a hydro line down the East Side of Lake Winnipeg and look for other and better ways to improve the lives of the people who live in those communities.

Our government respects what the people living on the East Side have told us, and we have been working on many of the recommendations that they have provided to us. We are committed to working with them on their priorities without tying that commitment to a particular development. Regarding the major upgrading of provincial road 373 from Norway House to Highway 6, this is a project that began in 1999 when this government first came to office. The initiative predates any of the East Side discussions and decisions and has no bearing on all-weather road routes. Cross Lake and Norway House are two of the largest First Nation communities in the province that have up to now had a pioneer road. They deserved better highway conditions and our NDP government has responded by upgrading this and other northern highways.

Looking forward, East Side communities have told us there was much interest in land-use planning and sustainable economic development, and our government remains committed to these priorities. We also recognize that road-access alone will not address the many other issues that lead to situations of unemployment, poverty, and poor health. Amongst our initiatives, we have doubled the winter road budget — including moving roads off of lakes and on to land for better certainty and safety — invested in airport upgrades, added health care services and supports on-reserve such as dialysis, the Healthy Baby program, parent education programs and prenatal benefits. In addition, we are investing in a River Stewards program that trains and employs local people in resource management, a Northern Education Curriculum developed with Bunibonibee First Nation, land planning activities, as well as working with local communities on sustainable forestry initiatives.

We also know much more must be done to improve provisions for youth recreation, to address suicides, and to increase regional health centres and transportation services.

The Manitoba government continues to invest in its relationships with East Side communities. Through the creation the WNO or Wabanong Nakagum Okimawin, which is a group made up of leadership from the 16 East Side First Nations as well as other representatives, we are ensuring that their voices continue to be heard.

Eric Robinson is Manitoba’s minister of culture, heritage and tourism and MLA for Rupertsland.