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.
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.
Liked it? Take a second to support True North Photo Journal on Patreon!
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.