A State of Erosion: A Legacy of Hydro in Manitoba’s North
Canada is the world’s third-largest producer of hydroelectric energy, with 97% of the energy in the Province of Manitoba produced by hydroelectricity under the crown corporation of Manitoba Hydro. 75% of that energy comes from five dams on the Nelson River system in the north of the province where a sixth mega-dam known as Keeyask is currently under construction to provide export energy to the United States. These dams have always been marketed as clean renewable energy, while at the same time they have transformed ecosystems, effectively impacting indigenous health, culture, and livelihood. After decades of exploiting indigenous lands without consultation, Manitoba Hydro was forced to partner with four communities whose traditional territory would be impacted by the new Keeyask dam. The proposed partnership divided the people – from those who saw the future in modern terms and those who clung tightly to their indigenous values to protect nature. Ultimately all four communities signed on: Tataskweyak Cree Nation, Fox Lake Cree Nation, York Landing, and War Lake Cree Nation. Each voted to purchase shares in the project, totaling 25%. Many who voted for the project said they were told, and believed, it would be built with or without their consent. Since approval, the dam has gone massively over budget from $5.7 billion to $6.5, now to an estimated $8.7 billion. However, by the time it is complete in 2021, it could cost upwards of $10.5 billion. This budget overrun coupled with a drop in the price of electricity in the U.S., due to natural gas fracking, has undercut profitability and the prospect for the communities to financially benefit from the partnership. The Tataskweyak Cree Nation who resides 60 km upstream of the new dam are worried for their future. Struggling with an already critical housing shortage, high unemployment, youth suicide, a drug crisis and a long-term boil water advisory, they will face the direct impacts of the Keeyask dam as their water levels rise, threatening the very foundations of their community and further contributing to a legacy of damages to First Nations environments.
A State of Erosion explores the reality of hydroelectric development in Northern Manitoba and seeks to examine its place within the broader legacy of Canada’s evolving history of environmental colonialism.
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The Churchill River is photographed from a float plane in Northern Manitoba, Canada on October 3, 2018. The 1000 mile Churchill River is one of two major rivers that flow into the Hudson Bay. In 1976 Manitoba Hydro diverted the river with the construction of the Missy Falls Control Structure at the mouth of South Indian Lake reducing the rivers flow to 15%. The diversion flooded the First Nation Community of South Indian Lake, forcing their displacement and devastative the second largest White Fish fishery in North America. The diversion increased the Nelson River flow, where the majority of Manitoba Hydroelectric energy is produced, by 25%.
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September 26, 2018. Robert Spence rests while cutting firewood near his trapline on the Churchill River, where he takes his family to hunt moose each fall in Northern Manitoba Canada. Spence is an elected Councillor the Tataskweyak Cree Nation known as the community of Split Lake, he once provided for his family as a commercial fisherman and fur trapper, but left the profession after the fishery became unprofitable due to declining stock and quality due to the impact of hydro dams on the river. Spence has long been a critic of Manitoba Hydro and decries their impact to his traditional land and waters, and as a Councillor works closely with them in an effort to mitigate further impacts to the land, river and community.
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September 23 2016. A fisherman’s boat approaches Two Mile Channel, an artificial channel created by Manitoba Hydro between Playgreen Lake, upstream from the community of Norway House Cree Nation, and Lake Winnipeg as part of the Lake Winnipeg Regulation. Historical construction activities in the 1970's resulted in soil and groundwater contamination along with the continued presence of construction debris along it’s banks. Significant erosion continues around the channel to this day, resulting in the sedimentation of Playgreen Lake impacting drinking water, light penetration and oxygen production impacting the ecosystem. https://www.lwic.org/location/2-mile-channel
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September 13 2016. Children play on the roof of an old cabin in the community of Cross Lake, home to the Pimicikamak Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba, Canada. Regulation from the Jen Peg dam has drastically impacted the community through drastic and sudden fluctuations in water level causing substantial long-term erosion, difficulty navigating the water by boat, and dangerous ice conditions for travel in the winter months. The cumulative impacts have devastated wildlife, fish populations, and eroded a cultural way of life. Cross Lake has dealt with a rash of youth suicides in recent years, which brought the community into the national spotlight. In 2016, 5 youth killed themselves and there were 140 expressions of desire or suicide attempts, that year they had the highest suicide rate in Canada.
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September 2016. Langford Saunders, President of the Norway House Fisherman's Co-op, rests in his boat after a day of commercial fishing on Lake Winnipeg in Northern Manitoba. Many fisherman complain of changes to their waterways due to hydro regulation; from a green slime and debris that gets caught in there nets, to an increase in lower grades of fish, such as mullet, instead of the higher priced pickerel and white fish.
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September 11, 2016. Jackson Osbourne holds an old image to compare a marshy bay near his home before and after it had been flooded by the nearby JenPeg dam in the community of Cross Lake, home to the Pimicikamak Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba, Canada. Regulation from the Jen Peg dam has drastically impacted the community through drastic and sudden fluctuations in water level causing substantial long-term erosion, difficulty navigating the water by boat, and dangerous ice conditions for travel in the winter months. The cumulative impacts have devastated wildlife, fish populations, and eroded a cultural way of life.
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June 11, 2019. Raymond Anderson, 53, of the Fox Lake Cree Nation fishes next to the Kettle dam near Gillam in Northern Manitoba, Canada. His grandfathers house was bulldozed during the construction of the township in order to facilitate development of hydroelectricity on the lower Nelson River in the 1960’s. Anderson works for Manitoba Hydro. “I started working in 1988, I’d never thought I’d work at hydro for 25 years,” but he says, “Hydro isn’t all bad you know, they did a lot of bad in the past, but it’s changed, they can’t get away with what they used to.” Fox Lake, which has a legacy of trauma from hydro development from the three major dams that surround them, Kettle, Long Spruce and Limestone are now one of four First Nations partners in the new Keeyask dam project.
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September 21, 2016. Fisherman pack their catch at the Playgreen Point Station processing facility near Norway House Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba, Canada. Commercial fishing is a main employer of Northern First Nations communities, but impacts to the water from hydroelectric development, erosion, and nutrient buildup has degraded the industry.
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Cohen, 10, Carter, 8, and their cousin Richard, 12, pick medicinal tea on an island on the Churchill River during a moose hunting trip on September 27, 2018. Annual hunting trips to the traplines are supported by funding from Manitoba Hydro covering the cost of flights in what is known as the Land Access Program. This is because hunting and fishing near their home on the Nelson River has been severely impacted by hydro development.
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October 25, 2018. Fox Lake Cree Nation Elder Noah Massan drives past a conversion station on his communities territory near the township of Gillam in Northern Manitoba, Canada. His trapline has been completely deforested by the construction of the Keeyask Dam, the fifth dam on the Nelson River currently under construction. Fox Lake, which has a legacy of trauma from hydro development from the three major dams that surround them, Kettle, Long Spruce and Limestone are now one of four First Nations partners in the Keeyask dam project.
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June 6, 2019. A trapline and cabin is seen next to the 1,384 km long Bipole III transmission line, which was completed in 2018 to transport the energy from the Keeyask Dam and increase Manitoba energy security. The line cuts through numerous First Nations territories and cost $5.04-billion up from it’s budgeted price tag of $3.28 billion. Transmission lines are another impact or remote hydroelectric dams and cut through swaths of forest, muskeg, and farmland. Herbicides are also applied to the land below the lines to prevent new growth.
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September 2018. A Fisherman's cabin near the community of Split Lake that was destroyed by erosion on flooding caused by hydroelectric dams on the Nelson River.
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September 19, 2018. Tataskweyak Cree Nation councillor Robert Spence combs an eroded shoreline where human remains were recently found near his community of Split Lake. Erosion caused by fluctuating water levels has unearthed numerous historic burial grounds in the area and will only get much worse after the completion of the Keeyask Dam 60 km downstream which will raise water levels on the lake.
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Father Kennith Kitchekeesik stands at the doorway to the church during a funeral for James Beardy who died due to diabetes complications in Split Lake on September 20, 2018. Diabetes has become a health crisis in many First Nations communities, and is linked to their change in diet away from traditional foods.
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A cross marking the place where Fox Lake member “Big” John Henderson killed himself directly below the Limestone dam on the Nelson River near Fox Lake First Nation. Henderson was employed by Manitoba Hydro at the time of his death.
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June 1, 2019. The Vale Nickel Mine near Thompson in Northern Manitoba. The town was originally founded in 1956 as a mining town and was the impetus for building the Kelsey dam, the first hydroelectric dam on the Nelson River, which would power the mines and town. Kelsey paved the way for more dams on the river system which would eventually produce 75% of Manitoba's electricity.
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September 9, 2016. A woodlot on highway 6 in Northern Manitoba, Canada. Large amounts of forest were cleared from the 93 square km reservoir area of the Keeyask dam in order to mitigate debris impacts and mercury contamination to the water system.
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September 26, 2018. Chaiton Spence, 15, butchers a moose during his families annual fall hunt on the Churchill River in Northern Manitoba, Canada. This was Chaiton’s first kill while alone and he did most of the work butchering it himself. For many Cree in Northern Manitoba, killing and learning to butcher a Moose is a rite of passage. Moose are a subsistence staple for the northern First Nations communities. The meat is flown back by plan and shared with elders in the community of Tataskweyak Cree Nation. In recent years fewer moose have been successfully hunted in and around the community and many believe it is due to the loss of willows, a favourite food source, along the riverbanks due to erosion from hydro dams. Annual hunting trips to the traplines are supported by funding from Manitoba Hydro covering the cost of flights in what is known as the Land Access Program. This is because hunting and fishing near their home on the Nelson River has been severely impacted by hydro development.
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Celine Samuel from God's Lake Narrows shows the marks left on her neck from a skirmish with RCMB after being picked up in Thomson for public intoxication. She is one of the many First Nations in Thompson who live at the homeless shelter. The history or residential schools, coupled with the ecological impacts to traditional ways of life from hydroelectric development have contributed to widespread social issues among Manitoba’s First Nations people.
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June 4, 2019. Young men use a torch and knives to smoke Cannabis in the community of Split Lake in Northern Manitoba, Canada. Many community members speak of a spike in alcohol and drug abuse especially cocaine since the surge of money entered the community from the construction of the Keeyask dam. The dry community enforces a checkpoint on the road entering town which searches for alcohol and drugs, council will sometimes expel repeat offenders from the community for periods of time.
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June 10, 2019. Jonathan Kitchekeesik from the community of Tataskweyak Cree Nation collects medicinal tea on his families traditional territory on Gull Lake on the Nelson River is Northern Manitoba, Canada. Behind him is the memorial for his cousin Leon who downed when he was 8 after falling through the ice nearby. Named Leon’s Island by the family, the site will be flooded by the Keeyask Dam. Jonathan worked on the environmental assessment for the Keeyask Dam project for which his community is one of four First Nations partners. He was one of the members of the community who supported the dam believing it would provide good jobs to the community, but he recently speaks more pessimistically about the project. “Everything that was destroyed there at Keeyask was done by our members, and they were proud of it,— but they should have been putting an offering for what was done. I think that’s why people are dying (in our community), it’s worse than Afghanistan, we have funerals every week. —I think we are being punished for what we did,” he said.
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September 22, 2018. A cemetery is illuminated by the Northern Lights in the First Nations community of Tataskweyak Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba, Canada. Manitoba hydro was forced to reinforce the banks surrounding the cemetery after erosion from fluctuating water levels began the threaten it. A number of bodies from older cemeteries and burial grounds have been found eroding into the lake in recent years prompting community outrage. Many in the community worry the cemetery will erode away or flood after the completion of the Keeyask dam 60km upstream which will permanently raise water levels on the lake. Tataskweyak Cree Nation is one fo four First Nations Partners in the new dam.
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Indigenous spiritual teacher Allen Keeper holds a dead snowy owl that was found near the base of the Long Spruce Generating Station near Gillam Manitoba on the Nelson River. As a sacred animal to the Cree people, he planned to use the feathers for ceremonial purposes.
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October 2018. Tataskweyak Cree Nation Elder Betsy Flett stands outside her home in Split Lake Manitoba. “I have no hope for the future,” she’s says, “you won’t be able to live here, cause it’s gonna flood. It’s already flooded where our loved ones rest. I tell my kids, when I die, why don’t you just throw me in the water, because that’s where I’m gonna end up anyways.” While Tataskweyak Cree Nation is a partner in the new Keeyask Dam, years of impacts, trauma, and broken promises from Manitoba Hydro have eroded trust in the provincial utility.
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Students play outside the Split Lake School during Halloween night on October 31, 2018. /Aaron Vincent Elkaim
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The Long Spruce Generating Station near Gillam Manitoba on the Nelson River. /Aaron Vincent Elkaim
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Cohen Moose, 10, sits on the antlers of a half butchered moose his grandfather Robert Spence killed on his trapline on the Churchill River in Northern Manitoba, Canada.
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June 6, 2019. The historic part of the community of Split Lake, home of the Tataskweyak Cree Nation sits on a split of land on the Nelson River and is therefore highly susceptible to flooding and erosion from fluctuating water levels. Manitoba hydro has surrounded the area with riprap to prevent further erosion after human remains began eroding onto the shoreline. Many in the community worry the cemetery at the end of the split will erode away or flood after the completion of the Keeyask dam 60km upstream which will permanently raise water levels on the lake. Tataskweyak Cree Nation is one of four First Nations Partners in the new dam.
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Split Lakes only water treatment plant was built in 1987 and uses the polluted Nelson River as its source. Long time residents speak of a time before the dams when they could drink straight from the clear waters. The community has been under a long-term boil water advisory since 2017 due to the inadequacy off the plant.
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May 9 2019. Commercial fisherman Leon Kencatch fishes with his grandson James Walker on Cedar Lake in the community of Easterville, Manitoba. Easterville is the reserve community of the Chemawawin Cree Nation, founded in 1962 after they were forcibly relocated from their original community closer to the mouth of the Saskatchewan River during the construction of the Grand Rapids Dam which flooded 202,343 hectares of land. The new site of Easterville created a number of problems for the community. The soil quality was poor and thin as a thick layer of limestone covered the area. This also prevented the community from building pit toilets and eventually the well water the community depended upon was contaminated with human waste. In 1971 mercury contamination to Cedar Lake caused by the flooding forced the government to shut down the fishing industry many in the community depended upon. While the trapping industry declined due to the loss of beaver and muskrat habitat.
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Robert Spence looks out the window of a plane while flying to Recluse Lake, a historic hunting ground for his people in Northern Manitoba Canada. Spence is an elected Councillor the Tataskweyak Cree Nation the community of Split Lake, he once provided for his family as a commercial fisherman and fur trapper, but left the profession after the fishery became unprofitable. Spence has long been a critic of Manitoba Hydro and decries their impact to his traditional land and waters, but as a Councillor works closely with them to mitigate further impacts and seek compensation for damages.
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June, 2019. The Keeyask Dam site at Gull Rapids on the Nelson River. The dam will be the 6th megadam on the Nelson River System and is being built to export energy to the United Sates. It is 3 billion dollars over budget with a total potentially nearing 10 Billion. The dam will be generate 6.9 Megawatts of energy and have a 93 square km reservoir. Four First Nations communities who live around the project are partners in the project.
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August 26, 2016. A mural commissioned by Manitoba Hydro depicting indigenous children on the banks of a blue river is a landmark in the city of Winnipeg. Hydroelectric energy is often marketed as a reliable resource that is "clean and green" to consumers but to the communities near these dams nothing could be further from the truth, as they suffer through a legacy of environmental and cultural degradation.
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August 3, 2018. David Bighetty, second left, arrived at the Manitoba Legislative Building after a month-long walk from Leaf Rapids raising awareness about the 15 year long evacuation of his northern Manitoba community. The community which has suffered impacts from the Churchill River Diversion were evacuated after their sanitation system malfunctioned flooding the community in waste.
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June 6, 2019. Aalaiyah, 10, plays on the riprap enforced banks surrounding the community of Split Lake in Northern Manitoba, Canada wearing a hat bearing the name of the Keeyask dam being built 60km downstream in which the community is a partner. Elders often speak about how they used to swim and play in the shallow waters catching crayfish that are now rarely seen, they lament that their grandchildren are unable to do the same as the shoreline in normally flooded and the polluted waters are known to cause rashes.
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June 6, 2019. Students from Split Lake are given a tour of an area near the Keeyask Dam where wildlife resource consultants working for Manitoba Hydro are monitoring Caribou populations. Manitoba Hydro employees photographed the visit which lasted about half an hour and use the images in their annual reports regarding indigenous relations. In the background is the 1,384 km long Bipole III transmission line, which was completed in 2018 to transport the energy from the Keeyask Dam and increase Manitoba energy security. The line cuts through numerous First Nations territories and cost $5.04-billion up from it’s budgeted price tag of $3.28 billion. Transmission lines are another impact or remote hydroelectric dams and cut through swaths of forest, muskeg, and farmland.
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2019Hunters from Split Lake drive the winter ice roads looking for Caribou crossing during the winter herd migration.
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November 2018. A funeral procession in the community of Split Lake.
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February 23, 2019. Kara, left, and her twin sister Fara Blacksmith embrace while visiting the grave of their late father Abrose Thomas Ross, who dies in 2015 after falling through the ice while driving an ATV in the community of Cross Lake home to the Pimicikamak Cree Nation. The water levels on Cross Lake fluctuate widely due to the nearby JenPeg dam which regulates the levels of Lake Winnipeg. This causes unstable ice conditions and dangerous travel in Winter, a common concern for many northern communities living near dams. https://globalnews.ca/news/1782840/premier-apologizes-to-cross-lake-first-nation-for-hydro-damage/ https://thenarwhal.ca/projects-of-death-impact-of-hydro-dams-on-environment-indigenous-communities-highlighted-at-winnipeg-conference/