Grand Rapids Dam Protest and MB Hydro Meeting


By Mathew Scammell

On June 10th, 2019, residents of Misipawistik Cree Nation and Grand Rapids hosted a rally and march in their community to protest the removal of night shift workers from the Grand Rapids Generating Station operated by Manitoba Hydro. This change in policy would see the dam go unmonitored from around 5:30pm until 7:00am every single day. This raised concerns in the local communities primarily as not only is the dam over fifty years old, but the people live directly downstream from the dam and would be directly impacted if a breach were to occur. Overnight operations were to be automated and controlled remotely from Winnipeg.

Members of Wa Ni Ska Tan teamed up with Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak and Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition to host a solidarity rally in Winnipeg to show support for friends and family living in Misipawistik Cree Nation and Grand Rapids. The protest was held at the MB Hydro head office in downtown Winnipeg. It included speeches by activists and former residents, a petition being circulated and signed, and finished up with a march to the legislative building followed by more impassioned speeches.

I was present at the Winnipeg protest and felt strength at the sight of so many folks coming together in support of a community so far away from where we were all standing that day. Many people in attendance that I spoke with were from Grand Rapids or members of Misipawistik Cree Nation, but had moved to Winnipeg either with their families or for work. They still felt a strong connection to their home community and wanted to show their support by coming out to protest.

In response to these protests, MB Hydro scheduled a meeting for June 28th with the local communities. Three representatives were present from MB Hydro – two were involved in the actual generation operations and the other one was from the Indigenous relations department. There were about forty people from the community, including both the Chief of Misipawistik Cree Nation and the Mayor of Grand Rapids, along with multiple town and band councillors.

The meeting started with an opening prayer and then introductions by the MB Hydro representatives. The representatives started with stating that concerns regarding access to the burial grounds behind the dam have been remedied and their conversations with Chief and Council had since resolved this. Almost immediately after, they claimed the overnight staff were simply being moved to day shifts and that this switch was not for monetary reasons – that the same number of overall employees would remain. This was followed by an assertion that the dam would not fail, and that the community should not be worried at all. The two people involved with operations did all the talking and answering – the Indigenous relations staff member said nothing apart from the introduction.

The community members then began to ask questions and make statements of their own. Person after person stood up and told the representatives from MB Hydro that they were concerned about the lack of staff that was being planned for the overnight shifts, and that even if automation is being routinely planned for other dams (as stated by MB Hydro) it doesn’t matter to them because the other dams don’t have a community directly downstream. The people repeatedly stated that they wanted workers in the dam 24/7 for the sake
of easing their anxieties involved with fearing a dam breach in the middle of the night with no workers in the station to help stop it. Seeing and hearing that these specific representatives from MB Hydro were only there to “listen” to the concerns of the community but not provide any real responses, emotions began to run high. Frustrations with the legacy of not only environmental but also social and economic impacts caused by the dam and MB Hydro began surfacing, with voices being raised and stern gazes being cast.

The MB Hydro representatives shifted nervously in their seats and were visibly uncomfortable – they could tell that unless they were able to show this community that they were there to make right on historical wrongs and accommodate the requests being spoken directly to them, they were not welcome. After about two hours of increasingly tense discussions, the meeting was concluded with a demand that the CEO of MB Hydro personally make a trip to the community to address their concerns. If the representatives at the meeting did not have the power to make the decisions that would affect the community and definitively say that automation will continue or stop, then the officials with that kind of power should have been sent instead.

All in all, the relationship between MB Hydro and the communities of Grand Rapids and Misipawistik Cree Nation did not improve as a result of the public meeting. The old school governmental tactics of listening with no intent to act seemed to be at play in this meeting, and the community members were well aware and prepared accordingly. As an outsider, it was very easy to see that it would take more than a simple public hearing-style meeting (scheduled on the Friday of a long weekend…) to heal the historical wounds that hydro development has inflicted for so long.

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