Hollow Water standoff

Posted on September 29th, 2007

By Mary Agnes Welch

Source: Winnipeg Free Press

There’s more at play here than a few cottage lots

A blocked cottage owner watches and waits on Sept. 17. The Hollow Water protest has postponed a long-anticipated draw for provincial cottage lots. MARC GALLANT / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

THE First Nations blockade near Hollow Water, now entering its third week with no end in sight, threatens to throw plans for the east side of lake Winnipeg into a shambles.

The 16-day-old protest has punted about 60 cottagers from their summer homes and postponed a long-anticipated draw for provincial cottage lots.

Now, with negotiations stalled and the RCMP unwilling to clear the roads, there’s talk the blockade could escalate to include a provincial highway and even the Bissett gold mine.

Hollow Water Chief Ian Bushie says the blockade was thrown up because the provincial government failed to consult the band before trying to sell off more than 40 cottage lots on Hollow Water’s traditional land.

But, cottage lots aside, the protest is a symptom of bigger, vaguer issues at play on the east side of Lake Winnipeg, some that threaten a territory that makes up about an eighth of Manitoba’s land mass.

The east side

Why you should care

The Hollow Water reserve is at the southern tip of the so-called east side — a swath of land roughly the size of Ireland. It’s directly across Lake Winnipeg from Hecla Island. The east side has become the epicentre of several issues that continue to bedevil the provincial government — clean hydro power, aboriginal poverty, traditional land rights, the logging and mining industries, eco-tourism and the conservation of one of the last intact parcels of boreal forest on the continent. The east side is home to some of the poorest and most isolated aboriginal reserves in the province, many without running water, proper schools or even year-round road access.

The east side is also where Manitoba Hydro originally wanted to run a massive transmission line linking northern dams to southern cities, including some in Ontario and Minnesota. Instead, last week, Hydro decided to spend $400 million more to run the power line down the west side of the province. As costly as that move may be, it allows Hydro to sidestep what could be years of tortured negotiations with the 16 First Nations on the east side.

The east side is also where Premier Gary Doer and a handful of First Nation chiefs hope to create a UNESCO World Heritage site to preserve and promote the boreal forest — a plan Doer has said is at odds with a hydro line, though many disagree.

And, the east side is the centre of a grand experiment meant to give aboriginal people control of — and revenue from — their traditional lands.

The Wabanong Nakaygum Okimawin

That’s WNO for short. It’s the accord on the future of the east side that was meant to avoid exactly the kind of brinkmanship now going on in Hollow Water.

Last April, at a long press conference heavy on ceremony, Doer, Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Phil Fontaine and almost all 16 chiefs from the east side gathered to sign a “landmark” planning accord that had been nearly a decade in the works.

It was touted as a progressive new way to guarantee First Nations more control over their traditional lands, not just their tiny reserves. It mandates that each First Nation will create its own development plan for its traditional lands, deciding where logging or housing or any other development can and cannot go.

The WNO also mandates that, in the meantime, any new projects on Crown land won’t happen without consulting First Nations in a meaningful way. And the WNO marks the start of a framework where First Nations can share in the profits from any development done on their traditional land, like eco-tourism, hunting, logging, mining or hydro power.

Now, because of Hollow Water and the hydro line down the west side, some east side chiefs say the WNO is in peril.

“They pick and choose where it applies,” said Berens River Chief George Kemp about the province. “It’s in tatters.”

Kemp said the province failed to genuinely work with First Nations before it put the cottage lots up for grabs or before it made the call to run the power line down the west side. Several bands are dead set against the power line, but other, including Berens River and Bloodvein, saw it as a chance to reap some of the millions in annual profits from the line, perhaps through a joint-ownership or management deal.

Kemp said Hydro and the province never really considered a deal with First Nations before deciding to run the line down the west.

But Conservation Minister Stan Struthers said the Hollow Water blockade in no way weakens the WNO planning initiative. He said bumps along the way were always expected.

“This quite clearly underlines the importance of continuing to work through the WNO on land-use planning,” said Struthers. “We don’t want to go back to a day when development decisions and boreal forest protection decisions are made strictly in Winnipeg or by politicians or in Ottawa or in Los Angeles by some environmental group or in Atlanta by some resource company.”

While the WNO process continues — it could take decades to get all 16 First Nations plans in place — it can’t be used as an excuse to stall good projects that could benefit First Nations, said Struthers.

He disputes the claim that the province failed to consult Hollow Water on the cottage lots. He said every east-side chief knew the province was willing to enter into profit-sharing deals on cottage lots, and numerous attempts to contact Hollow Water went unanswered. To buttress that view, Struthers’ staff released an almost comical log listing nearly 20 attempts since March of 2006 to get Hollow Water’s input on the cottage lots. There were phone calls, requests for meeting by phone, letters and in-person visits.

‘The real issue’

“I don’t believe the minister of conservation has the means or the will to talk about the real issue,” fired back Bloodvein Chief Craig Cook, whose reserve is about an hour’s drive north of Hollow Water.

The real issue, said Cook, is control over land aboriginal people inhabited for thousands of years — a concept the courts and Canadian governments have barely begun to grapple with.

“We don’t want your taxpayers to fund our poverty,” said Cook. “At a certain point, we need to be a full part of this country.”

University of Manitoba native studies professor Peter Kulchyski said Hollow Water’s claim on its traditional land has merit.

Treaties have long recognized a band’s right to continue to maintain their traditional economies and practices, including the use of unoccupied Crown land. And, for the last several years, the courts have interpreted aboriginal rights broadly and generously, though he said governments have failed to follow suit.

The WNO process, as time-consuming and fussy as it’s been, represented the start of a genuine attempt to make First Nations real partners in the future of their land. But Kulchyski said that vision appears to have been bypassed during the hydro line debate and the cottage lot process in Hollow Water –the last straw after generations of logging, mining and development on land that once belonged to aboriginals.

What’s next

For Struthers, the RCMP and cottage owners, it’s a wait-and-see game.

Bushie hasn’t been in contact with Struthers for more than a week. He could not be located by the Free Press for comment, despite several messages left for him and band councillors. Staff in the band office said he was in Edmonton for the second half of the week.

Meanwhile, Struthers has postponed the cottage lot draw, promised full consultation and mediation and is willing to work on a revenue-sharing deal on the cottage lots. He is willing to drive up to Hollow Water for a face-to-face meeting on Bushie’s turf, as long as the blockades come down.

“I don’t want to be in a position where every time I show good faith another blockade goes up, because quite frankly, that’s where we’ve been at,” said Struthers. “I’m willing to do my part on my side of the blockade.”