In The Shadow of The Dams: The Legacy
of Manitoba Hydro on Province’s First Nations


It was shortly after dusk when our float-plane arrived on the trapline along the Churchill River in Northern Manitoba. Within a few hours we heard our first call from across the river. “Moose,” said Chaiton Spence, who’s father Robert, a band councillor from Split Lake and former trapper, fisherman, and hunting guide proceeded to hush his eager grandchildren. “Ooof! Ooof!” he called back, mimicking the sound of a cow to lure the bull moose in.

These fall hunting trips are an annual tradition for the hunters of Tataskweyak Cree Nation who call the shores of Split Lake home. Once an animal is finally harvested, it is flown back to the community and is shared among family and elders. Though the hunt is old as time, nowadays those with cabins on trap lines are now flown out as part of a land access program funded by the crown corporation, Manitoba Hydro. It is just one of many facets of a compensation agreement with the Tataskweyak Cree Nation to make up for the impacts of hydroelectric dams to their waters and traditional way of life.

Manitoba Hydro’s devastating impact on Northern First Nations communities began in the 1960s, when the crown corporation began to harness the energy of Lake Winnipeg and the Nelson River with the construction of hydroelectric dams. The first was the Kelsey Dam 20 kilometres upstream of Split Lake, which was built to power the nickel mines in the newly founded city of Thompson,. Today, hydroelectric energy accounts for 97 per cent of the energy generated in Manitoba. Split Lake is just one of a handful of Indigenous communities that has been negatively impacted by the environmental impacts of the province’s electrical infrastructure. Along the entire route of Manitoba Hydro’s power generation are First Nations Communities whose lives have been upended by the need for what has been marketed as “clean energy.”

“Hydro has done what residential schools were unable to do, it has destroyed our culture,” says Tataskweyak Cree Nation Elder Eunice Beardy.

Tatakweyak Cree Nation Elder and teacher Eunice Beardy, speaks of the impacts of hydro electric development on her lands and a trauma equal to that of residential schools. Remembering her childhood she said, “When I left here for school it was so beautiful, those were the happiest days of my life.” Her image is overlaid with an image of the steamy waters below the Grand Rapids dam where the water never freezes, even in 40 degrees below.

Local First Nations fight against Manitoba Hydro dates back to 1975 when a public inquiry was launched to address the concerns of several communities. By 1977 the federal and provincial governments in tandem with Manitoba Hydro negotiated the The Northern Flood Agreement with First Nations from Split Lake, Nelson House, York Landing, Norway House, and Cross Lake. The agreement promised compensation for the duration of the projects for injury or of loss of life on the waterways made hazardous by debris or unstable ice. Among many protections which the two governments claimed to offer was the “eradication of mass poverty and mass unemployment.” The treaty, however, was never implemented.

Then in 1992 the government proceeded to individually negotiate with each community to sign “implementation agreements”, which effectively nullified their obligations under the NFA. Four of the five communities signed agreements, each unique and independent of the next, which included large cash settlements, but the community of Cross Lake refused. To this day they continue to fight for their rights under the NFA.

Manitoba Hydro is currently in the process of completing its sixth and most expensive megadam on the Nelson River, known as Keeyask. The primary purpose of the dam is to export energy to the United States. After decades of exploiting Indigenous lands for profit 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 profitability and employment in the partnership 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, totalling 25 per cent. Many who voted for the project said they were told, and believed, it would be built with or without their consent. Since approval in 2012, the price tag for the dam and transmission line has grown from $9.8 billion to almost $14 billion. This budget overrun coupled with a drop in the price of electricity in the United States, due to natural gas fracking, has undercut profitability and the prospect for the communities to financially benefit from the partnership.

The collection of photographs published here were taken between 2016 and 2019 while exploring the reality of life in the shadow of hydroelectric development in northern Manitoba. The creation of composites were inspired by the art work of Split Lake’s Robert Spence.

The publishing of this story was sponsored by Smokestack Studios

Editor’s note: Aaron Vincent Elkaim’s documentary work in northern Manitoba was supported through grants from the Ontario Arts Council and the University of Manitoba’s Wa Ni Ska Tan, an organization that works with hydro-impacted communities. Neither organization had any editorial influence on the production of this work.

Robert Spence rests while butchering a moose hunted on his trapline on the Churchill River, in Northern Manitoba. Spence is an elected Councillor of 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 due to declining stock. His image is overlaid with the Vale(originally INCO) Nickle Mine, in Thompson, MB. Production began in 1961 at what was the first integrated nickel-mining, smelting, concentrating and refining complex in the Western world, which was the impetus to build the first dam, Kelsey, on the Nelson River.
Chaiton Spence, 15, butchers a moose during his families annual fall hunt on the Churchill River in Northern Manitoba. 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. 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.
Celine Samuel from God’s Lake Narrows shows the marks left on her neck from the RCMB after being picked up in Thomson, MB for public intoxication. She is one of a number of First Nations in Thompson who live at the homeless shelter. Her image is overlaid with a lumberyard south of Thompson.
People gather to watch competitions during the Pimicikamak Cree Nations 60th anniversary Trappers Festival in the community of Cross Lake on February 19, 2019. The festival honours the indigenous traditions of the community. Cross Lake is one of the largest and most impacted communities by hydro development since the construction of the nearby Jen Peg Dam in 1979 which controls the levels of Lake Winnipeg and has created massive water level fluctuations and mass erosion on their watershed.
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. The image is overlaid by a photograph during a protest at the Manitoba Legislative Building where David Bighetty arrived after a month-long walk from Leaf Rapids to raise awareness about the 15-year long evacuation of his northern Manitoba community.
Protesters from Manitoba’s northern First Nations communities demanding environmental justice from Manitoba Hydro on World Water Day in Winnipeg, on March 22, 2019. This photograph is overlaid with an image of the Grand Rapids Dam on the mouth of the Saskatchewan River at Lake Winnipeg, the first major dam built in Northern Manitoba.
A tug of war contest during the Pimicikamak Cree Nations 60th anniversary Trappers Festival in the community of Cross Lake on February 19, 2019. The festival honours the Indigenous traditions of the community. Cross Lake is one of the largest and most impacted communities by hydro development since the construction of the nearby Jen Peg Dam in 1979 which controls the levels of Lake Winnipeg and has created massive water level fluctuations and mass erosion on their watershed.
Fisherman Christopher Clark stands on the altered banks of 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 its 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. The image is overlaid with one of the Long Spruce Generating Station near Gillam Manitoba on the Nelson River.
Earl Garson, Cidney Hoffman, and Brady Mahem pose for a photograph while hanging out and smoking cannabis in a broken down van in the community of Split Lake, MB. The image is overlaid with signs for missing and killed youth posted at the entrance to the community of Cross Lake, MB.
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.
Grandchildren of Jackson Osborne sleep in the living room in the community of Cross Lake, MB. Housing in the community is in severe shortage forcing many children and grandchildren to live with their parents long into adulthood.
A trapline and cabin is seen next to the 1,384 kilometre 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 billion up from it’s previously 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.
Angel Muswagon sings a song about her late mother during the Talent Show of the 60th anniversary Trappers Festival in Cross Lake, MB. home to the Pimicikimack First Nation. Her image is overlaid with the Northern Lights in Northern Manitoba.
Cohen, 10, Carter, 8, and their cousin Richard, 12, pick medicinal tea on an island on the Churchill River during a moose hunting trip.
Indigenous teacher Allen Keeper gives a lesson to students from Split Lake about native spirituality at his sweat lodge just outside of the community in Northern Manitoba, Canada. Keeper spoke of a time when sweats were prohibited in the community due to the influence of the church, but that his father would secretly hold them out on the land.
Sydney Colon loads his catch at the Playgreen Point Station fish processing facility near Norway House First Nation in Northern Manitoba. Commercial fishing is a main employer of Northern First Nations communities, but impacts to the water from hydroelectric development, erosion, and nutrient buildup have degraded the industry.
Fisherman pack their catch at the Playgreen Point Station fish processing facility near Norway House Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba 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. The image is overlaid with an image of the Churchill River, where native Sturgeon populations are threatened by hydro regulation.
Langford Saunders, the prior 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.
Brady Mahem stands in the forest with a grouse he shot during a student traditional knowledge trip organized
by his community of Split Lake.
Pimicikamak First Nation Elder and knowledge keeper Edith Mary Blacksmith is photographed in her home in Cross Lake on her 91st birthday. 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. Blacksmith considers the impacts to be a cultural genocide. Her image is layered with pelicans migrating over lake Winnipeg.
Fishing in the community of Norway House, MB. The image is overlaid with nearby power lines.
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Written By
Aaron Vincent Elkaim

Aaron Vincent Elkaim

Aaron Vincent Elkaim is a Canadian documentary photographer. His work focuses on cultural-environmental narratives that examine the relationship between humanity and the natural world within the evolving landscapes of development and colonialism. Balancing the subjective nature of photography and the search for truth, Aaron builds narratives that strive to address the need to protect the natural world through questioning our relationship to it.