Right choice on east side

Posted on October 5th, 2007

By Eric Robinson

Source: Winnipeg Free Press

We can no longer afford to make decisions based solely on the bottom line

MANITOBA Hydro’s recent decision to pursue a route down the west side of Lake Winnipeg has triggered a great deal of misinformation by editorialists, politicians and those with private interests related to any potential transmission line.

The perceived benefits need to be examined carefully if we are to avoid repeating a history littered with false hope and broken promises to First Nations.

You don’t have to have grown up amidst Manitoba’s breathtaking expanse of boreal forest between the eastern shores of Lake Winnipeg and the Ontario border to recognize what a truly special place it is. So special, in fact, that the area is currently being considered for recognition alongside such legendary places as Machu Picchu in Peru as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But for the First Nations residents who have hunted, fished, trapped, laughed, prayed, lived and died there for thousands of years, the east side takes on a level of significance not easily understood by others.

It’s true that some east-side leaders are in favour of Bipole III being built through their traditional territories. This is understandable in light of the poverty crippling their communities and the fact that Bipole III is being touted as a great opportunity to provide jobs and economic development.

The economic benefits of Bipole III to east-side people, however, have been exaggerated by those who stand to gain the most.

CREECO — a company formed by the James Bay Cree of Quebec — is working to convince east side leaders of the benefits of Bipole III.

There has even been talk of First Nations ownership of the line, which would then be leased back to Hydro. Unfortunately, this is an unrealistic scenario that our political opponents are only too happy to circulate.

Hydro’s own material states that “Manitoba Hydro is not prepared to share in ownership of Bipole III because the line will be a key part of its integrated power system and must be managed and operated in conjunction with the system.”

The same report further addresses the myth that Bipole III would provide significant job and business opportunities for underemployed east side residents, stating that “construction jobs and business opportunities associated with Bipole III will be modest and of short duration. Once the lines are built and in place, there are very few operating and maintenance job opportunities.” (December 2002 Summary of Key Perspectives from introductory meetings with leadership of east-side First Nations, Manitoba Hydro)

Another perceived benefit of Bipole III is that a road will follow the path of a power line.

Manitoba Hydro is not in the business of building provincial roads; government is.

In fact, the government of Manitoba recognizes the effects of climate change on the ever-shrinking winter road season and has begun building an east-side road to connect isolated communities without Bipole III. Clearly, a massive hydro export corridor for someone else’s use is different than a road for local indigenous use. A road has obvious benefits to east-side people in terms of reducing the cost of living and doing business — a power line does not. The NDP’s approach to the east side is the direct result of extensive meetings with east-side people. From 80 separate community meetings held across the east side with several NDP ministers, we learned the majority of east side people were not supportive of Bipole III.

If our critics would take the time to visit the east side, they would discover that building road access and protecting the environment, while pursuing sustainable and lasting economic development, are the priorities of east-side residents. We continue to work with First Nations governments in realizing their vision in reaching these priorities

Indian people have always been, and remain, stewards of Mother Earth. Thanks to the recently signed Wabanong Nakaygum Okimawin (WNO) Accord, for the first time in our history, the First Nations of the east side will have a voice in shaping economic development activities on their traditional lands. The groundbreaking WNO accord recognizes community involvement and benefits for any and all resource development activities on the east side.

Our government has been criticized both for not going far enough and for going too far in protecting the east side. There is no doubt that the proponents of building a power line down the east side will continue to argue that the move makes sound business sense. But I believe we are at a point in our history where we can no longer afford to make decisions based solely on the bottom line. Our bottom line must also include preserving Manitoba’s slice of Mother Earth for future generations. We owe it to our children and grandchildren not to put a price on that.

Eric Robinson is MLA for Rupertsland and minister of culture, heritage, tourism and sport