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Charlie Beardy, remembers swimming in the clear water of High Rock, a body of water located near the Nelson River, as a kid.
“We used to go enjoy our lake time,” said Beardy.
Beardy, 54 and a member of Tataskweyak Cree Nation, described the High Rock of his childhood as beautiful, with a beach and crystal-clear water.
Manitoba Hydro started developing the area with Kelsey, their first generating station on the Nelson River, built between 1957 and 1961. Since then, the beautiful bright blue water has transformed into a murky greenish colour — and so did the Nelson River.
“The water isn’t the way it used to be,” said Beardy.
Indigenous lands and resources are continuing to be exploited by government organizations in Manitoba according to experts and Indigenous communities. On March 9, 2022, the Keeyask Generating Station, a 695-megawatt dam, was finally completed when its final unit was put into service.
The dam’s construction, from 2012 to July 2014, had reports of sexual assaults, racism, and extreme budget overruns. Those reports have overshadowed the allegations of greenwashing and environmental impacts that have also surrounded Keeyask.
But how have Indigenous communities been affected by Keeyask and hydroelectric projects in the past?
On the northern shore of the Nelson River lives an Indigenous community — Tataskweyak Cree Nation or Split Lake. According to the Government of Canada, Tataskweyak Cree Nation has a population of 4,014. They’ve also been in a boil water advisory for several years, according to the Government of Canada.
Tataskweyak Cree Nation is not only facing environmental impacts from the Keeyask Generating Station, but two others as well.
The Limestone Generating Station — around 230 kilometres south of Churchill — is 1,350 megawatts and cost around $1.3 billion, according to Manitoba Hydro. Limestone was completed in 1990. Wuskwatim, a 200-megawatt generating station on the Burntwood River at Taskinigup Falls. Wuskwatim was completed in 2012 and cost $1.3 billion to build.
In the 1920s, Tataskweyak Cree Nation wasn’t a permanent home for people. Many people came to the community during the summer or Christian holidays and then headed back out to live in their traditional hunting areas throughout the year.
Around 100 people lived in Split Lake year-round.
Tataskweyak Cree Nation started to feel the impacts of Hydro projects in the 1970s. “It was by far the most profound agent of change, causing both major physical impacts on the lands and waters, as well as the resulting undermining of the essence of our traditional practices and customs,” said their website.
“It seemed to many that the way forward had become obscure, that there was a real danger of losing not only a known and loved environment as a consequence of hydroelectric development, but also losing our culture and traditions that are intimately linked to the land,” said the website.
“We as a First Nation showed remarkable resilience.”
During the 1990s, Tataskweyak Cree Nation started on a path to reclaim what was theirs by taking control of their land and waters.
“We began a revival of cultural practices throughout the community; the sharing of country foods is but one example,” according to the website.
Greenwashing isn’t always noticeable on the surface — but digging deep into claims made in advertisements, and presentations will expose whether or not claims of something being “clean” and “green” are true.
Manitoba Hydro’s construction of the Keeyask dam adds to the long colonial history of Indigenous lands and resources being exploited according to experts, but was Manitoba Hydro using greenwashing to make the project seem more environmentally friendly than it really is?
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is when companies make false and misleading claims about their product or service being environmentally friendly, explained Andrea Sutherland, a fourth-year environmental science student at the University of Manitoba.
“Your green talk doesn’t really match your green walk,” Sutherland said explaining the concept.
Sutherland said the term was first coined in the 1980s by environmentalist Jay Westerveld who looked into a hotel’s towel reuse policy advertised as being a water conservation measure — he found out the real intention was to save costs.
Sutherland conducted a case study in 2020 on greenwashing done by Manitoba Hydro, BC Hydro, and Hydro-Québec. Her four-month study compared scientific reports and data from Manitoba Hydro with reports from other unaffiliated sources, including Indigenous knowledge.
Greenwashing can affect a specific product or cover an entire corporation or industry — and it’s pervasive. Ninety-four per cent of Canadian products are greenwashed according to a study by Ecoforum. EcoForum is an international, peer-reviewed, and open access journal according to their website.
Dawn dish soap is a familiar example of greenwashing. Procter & Gamble Co, advertises their dish soap with baby ducklings and they claim that “Dawn helps save wildlife.” Environmental journalist Adria Vasil told CBC that Dawn’s dish soap is toxic to aquatic life due to the inclusion of triclosan — a antimicrobial agent — but Procter & Gamble says they don’t add anything that could be harmful to the environment.
Sutherland described two different lists for greenwashing — a more general list that applies to products or services, and a list that applies to firms or companies. She said the first list is called the “seven sins of greenwashing.” These sins include hidden trade-offs, no proof, vagueness, worshiping false labels, irrelevance, the lesser of two evils, and fibbing.
Sutherland said she feels Manitoba Hydro falls into the vagueness category. Manitoba Hydro uses the words “clean” and “green” while advertising their hydroelectricity, but it doesn’t provide a definition for what those words mean to the company.
The second list, which covers firms and companies, includes false hopes, broken promises, fearmongering, hazardous consequences, injustice, and profits over people and planet.
In the second level of greenwashing, Sutherland said she notices Manitoba Hydro fit into the broken promises and injustices category.
“What people in the south hear about Hydro is absolutely not reflecting [Indigenous communities’] experience in the north,” said Sutherland.
Greenwashing is technically illegal in Canada. Under the Government of Canada’s Competition Act, it would be considered a deceptive marketing practice. It says companies can’t make false or misleading comments about their product or service. The Competition Act itself isn’t strictly enforced unless there are competing business or customer complaints that accuse a company of violating the act.
Sutherland said that since Manitoba Hydro is a Crown corporation it doesn’t have any competition — therefore little to no regulation of the act.
“There is no competition so what are we regulating?” said Sutherland.
An example of Manitoba Hydro’s greenwashing is the way lake sturgeon have been treated.
At the Manitoba Clean Environment Commission’s Keeyask hearing in 2013, referenced in chapter six of In Our Backyard, Manitoba Hydro argued, “the endangered lake sturgeon populations are more likely better off with the dam because habitats and passages will be created for them.”
Manitoba Hydro tried to mitigate the destruction by creating new sturgeon habitats noted Stephane McLachlan, a professor in the faculty of environment at the University of Manitoba. Manitoba Hydro created a video where Hydro employees and kids released baby sturgeon into a new habitat — which McLachlan felt was done for show rather than something grounded in science.
“We don’t know what the heck happens to [sturgeon], and it’s in the face of all this damage they’re creating as they wipe out these populations,” said McLachlan. “It was just an exercise in science fiction, as far as I can see.”
“Lake sturgeon are basically disappearing,” said McLachlan.
Generating stations affect whole ecosystems and not just wildlife, but fish have taken the biggest hit — specifically, lake sturgeon.
“The entire ecosystem just gets re-worked because when you flood a reservoir, you’re going from a river system to essentially a lake, but it’s not a lake, it’s a manmade system. So that will have impacts of course on all your wildlife in the area, but especially the fish — and the sturgeon especially in Manitoba are at a huge risk,” said Sutherland.
Sturgeon — also known as ‘rock sturgeon’ — are fish that look prehistoric. Sturgeon are one of the oldest fish within the Great Lakes. Males live to around 55 years and females have been recorded living to 150 years, according to the National Wildlife Foundation.
“They almost look like something you would see in a kind of dinosaur documentary or something,” said McLachlan.
Fully-grown sturgeons are around two metres long, weigh 90 kilograms, and have coarse skin. According to the National Wildlife Foundation, they are also vulnerable to drastic changes in water levels.
Beardy said lately his family members noticed sturgeon weren’t around that much anymore.
“The ones they caught were mostly just small,” said Beardy. “Sturgeons, when they’re really healthy, they’re really big.”
Sutherland described her conversations with Indigenous peoples she spoke with who were astonished at Manitoba Hydro’s arrogance regarding sturgeon habitats. Manitoba Hydro thought if they built a habitat for sturgeon, the sturgeon would use it. “That sturgeon has been living in that river for so long, to just assume you can re-route its life is so arrogant,” said Sutherland.
McLachlan said that Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous science aren’t very respected among other scientists.
“Indigenous science: decision-makers don’t listen to it, scientists don’t listen to it — it doesn’t count,” said McLachlan.
Indigenous communities were able to voice their concerns about the environmental impacts the Keeyask project would bring, but as McLachlan said, decision-makers don’t listen.
McLachlan started off as a biologist but now works collaboratively with communities on environmental justice-related issues. For example, a study McLachlan conducted with Cree and Dene communities northeast of Alberta about oil sands affecting Indigenous communities.
McLachlan headed a team of researchers in Athabasca, Alta. to conduct a study about how their oil sands were affecting the Indigenous communities. During the three-year research project, they documented the medical history of 113 local people. They discovered 21 per cent of them had some form of cancer — which may have been due to the oil sands.
“We did a big press release. It got reported around the world — and nothing happened. It just showed me how naive I was around science speaking for itself and whether people would listen to it or not,” said McLachlan.
Indigenous science and knowledge needs to be more valued, especially when it comes to their knowledge of wildlife and animals.
Discussions began between Tataskweyak Cree Nation and Manitoba Hydro for a mutually beneficial dam that wouldn’t cause too much damage to the land but also provide social and economic benefits to the Nation.
Tataskweyak Cree Nation & Manitoba Hydro began creating a framework for the Joint Keeyask Development Agreement. The JKDA is a foundation that lays out all the information about the dam and the financial benefits different Nations would receive because of this dam.
At this point the three other Nations are involved and each of the Chiefs spoke with Manitoba Hydro to set out principles for the percentage of ownership interest available, for each of them.
Manitoba Hydro & the participating Cree Nation Chiefs started the process proposal to finalize the JKDA.
Tataskweyak Cree Nation, Hydro, and War Lake started the War Lake Participation Agreement. It outlines how War Lake First Nation would be involved in the project.
Tataskweyak Cree Nation and War Lake signed their KCN adverse effects agreements with Hydro. That agreement was aimed to avoid, mitigate, and promise compensation for impacts the project would have on the Nations, according to the International Hydropower Association.
Tataskweyak Cree Nation releases a Keeyask Transmission report outlining how community members feel about the dam and what will be ensured during the dam’s construction. This was independent from Manitoba Hydro.
Clean Environment Commission hearings were held in Winnipeg to hear concerns and statements about the environmental impacts of the dam.
Construction on the project began.
Keeyask’s creation started in 1988 alongside discussions promising collaboration with some Indigenous communities around the Nelson River: Tataskweyak Cree Nation, Fox Lake Cree Nation, War Lake First Nation, and York Factory First Nation.
These communities were grouped as the ‘Keeyask Cree Nations’ by Manitoba Hydro.
From Manitoba Hydro’s perspective, Keeyask was a win-win-win. It was able to create a 695-megawatt generating station that, according to Manitoba Hydro, would provide “4,400 gigawatt-hours of renewable electricity per year to Manitoba Hydro’s total supply.” This is enough to power 400,000 homes.
Manitoba Hydro promised Indigenous communities continued collaboration, jobs, and a percentage of ownership of the dam.
Although, some Indigenous peoples felt like the collaboration wasn’t genuine. They were able to express their concerns in multiple Manitoba Clean Environment Commission hearings.
“You can’t make friends with people who are in it for money,” said Robert Spence, a land and resource user from Tataskweyak Cree Nation, during a Manitoba CEC hearing in 2013.
The Manitoba Clean Environment Commission is an arms-length provincial government agency that makes recommendations to ministers for projects that have an impact on the environment.
Throughout the process of Keeyask there were many CEC hearings. They involved Indigenous communities around the Nelson River, who shared their frustrations with the dam and Manitoba Hydro. Students also sent in hand-written letters explaining how they felt about the Keeyask project.
Quotes from the CEC hearing transcripts were included in a book published in 2022 titled In Our Backyard: Keeyask and the Legacy of Hydroelectric Development edited by Aimée Craft and Jill Blakely. This book includes a collection of essays, data, environmental impact perspectives, poems, and stories from those impacted by Keeyask and previous hydroelectric developments.
Tataskweyak Cree Nation, Fox Lake Cree Nation, War Lake First Nation, and York Factory First Nation were involved in the Joint Keeyask Development Agreement (JKDA). It outlined the financial benefits available for the communities and agreements surrounding the environmental impacts of the dam.
York Factory First Nation released a press release on Feb. 11, 2022, through the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, calling on Manitoba Hydro to update the financial terms of the JKDA.
“York Factory and our partner First Nations reached out to Manitoba Hydro and the Province of Manitoba this fall. We are calling on the Province of Manitoba to commit to work with us to update the JKDA and make sure that First Nations will see long-term benefits from Crown-led resource development in their territories,” said York Factory First Nation Chief Leroy Constant.
The report said, due to the budget overruns, Keeyask’s economic forecast being changed, and the forecast of “net export revenues being dramatically reduced” the JKDA can no longer create the long-term benefits that were initially promised.
“The JKDA has become a lopsided proposition that guarantees more than $100 million in annual water rental and guarantee fees to Manitoba’s provincial government,” said the release.
It’s been 13 years since the JKDA was signed.
“The government has changed, the entire board of Manitoba Hydro has changed, the CEO of Hydro has changed, and the Hydro vice-president who took the lead on Keeyask has moved on. Those who made the decisions are gone,” said freelance journalist Will Braun in chapter two of In Our Backyard. “Over the next decade or two, they can observe Keeyask’s track record, if they choose, from the comfort of cottages and retirement homes. But the people in whose backyard the dam is built, remain.”
Shouldn’t these communities be able speak with Manitoba Hydro about their concerns, without sending a press release?
In Manitoba Hydro’s 2021-2022 Environmental, Social, and Governance report, it describe’s their relationship with Indigenous communities.
“Our two most recent hydropower projects, the Wuskwatim Generating Station and the Keeyask Project, included the involvement of Indigenous communities right from the initial development and planning stages to understand and incorporate their perspectives and create employment and business opportunities in partnership,” said Manitoba Hydro communications and external & Indigenous relations vice-president Jeff Betker. “This approach continues into operations with a commitment to long-term environmental monitoring based on local Indigenous knowledge and technical science.”
But, in York Factory First Nations press release Constant shares a different story.
“Despite the promise of Keeyask, the reality has been very different,” said Constant. “Relationships in the Keeyask Board have been strained: we have been outvoted; Manitoba Hydro representatives have walked out of our Partnership meetings; and we have been treated with closed and muted zoom screens during meetings of the Partnership. With Manitoba Hydro as Project Manager and majority decision-maker, our actual ‘say’ and promised ability to direct the Project has been virtually non-existent.”
Yet again, Manitoba Hydro says they have been collaborating with Indigenous communities.
“It’s collaborative in every sense of the word. Yes, sometimes there are stumbling blocks and disagreement but there’s a realization from everyone that if we want to make it better, we need to sit down and discuss and to seek what type of resolution works best,” said Bruce Owen, media relations officer for Manitoba Hydro.
This isn’t the first time Manitoba Hydro has been accused of being unresponsive throughout the process of the project.
Tataskweyak Cree Nation and many other Keeyask-affected communities have faced substantial impacts such as damages to wildlife, land, and gravesites due to the flooding.
In 2020, Manitoba Hydro removed the gravesite of a seven-year-old boy who fell through the Nelson River in 1980, without the family’s consent. CBC reported the Kitchekeesik family was aware that the memorial needed to be moved so Manitoba Hydro could continue with construction and the family “reluctantly agreed” to move the memorial.
The family told Manitoba Hydro that they needed time to pick a new spot, clear it out, and hold a final gathering for him, said CBC.
Due to unforeseen circumstances, the family couldn’t get everything done over the weekend and Hydro was contacted to let them know of the situation — but no one responded.
On Monday, Aug. 24, the family was told the memorial had been moved.
Remedies and Apologies
In Our Backyard, says many communities were conflicted because Manitoba Hydro promised Keeyask would provide socioeconomic benefits such as jobs.
“It seems like we are getting into these agreements, and I wonder; do we really know the full impact of what we’re getting into? … For me it seems like through these agreements we are being forced to help destroy and damage our land. And in doing this, it is like we are breaking our natural laws.”An excerpt from “You Are In Cree Territory,” which was read during the Dec. 9, 2013, The Manitoba Clean Environment Commission hearing in Winnipeg (page 75.)
McLachlan said some Indigenous leaders who were approached to take part of this project were unsure of what to do.
“Leadership is caught between a rock and a hard place,” said McLachlan. “They know that if they don’t become engaged that it’s gonna happen anyway. And there’s a whole colonial history taking place in this province and around Canada.”
Beardy said he feels Tataskweyak Cree Nation didn’t consider the aftermath of pollution and damage to land when agreeing to the project.
“We were blinded by the dollar sign,” said Beardy. “We couldn’t see beyond what was going to take place.”
Tataskweyak Cree Nation is not the first, and it won’t be the last, to be impacted by Hydro projects. McLachlan emphasized that Manitoba Hydro needs to build real genuine relationships with Indigenous communities and have continuous collaboration for projects like this to work.
“Even if it ends up changing the outcome, well that’s fine because that’s a genuinely inclusive approach, if they did that then I think it would be a win-win situation,” said McLachlan.
The solution isn’t to just abandon new hydroelectricity developments altogether but instead to address that there’s a lack of honest communication and consistency in the relationship building with Manitoba Hydro and Indigenous communities.
Sutherland said that the best thing Manitoba Hydro can do is take responsibility for its actions, owning up to the greenwashing sins of vagueness and broken promises.
“People need to be taking responsibility for this greenwashing that’s happening,” said Sutherland.
Sutherland brought up a concept McLachlan refers to called “perimeter vision,” where anyone residing within Winnipeg’s perimeter is blissfully unaware of what happens outside of it.
“We need to always be remembering that it [hydroelectricity] has its consequences,” said Sutherland.
In Our Backyard says many Indigenous communities don’t see hydropower as clean energy. To them hydroelectricity projects are extremely damaging due to the negative impacts on land, wildlife, and water.
“People in northern communities have been living that reality for so long, there really needs to be a greater systemic change to how we think about hydropower, and how we recognize its impacts,” said Sutherland. “When we’re in Winnipeg we live such a sheltered life … we can feel good inside because ‘we’re using hydroelectricity in Winnipeg and there are no real impacts’, but that’s just an absolute lie. So really, just making that truth more visible would be the place to start.”
Sutherland said it’s important Manitobans put all options out there instead of just saying, “we’ll build more dams,” so we don’t continue to make the same mistakes. Funding solar power projects similar to Fisher River Cree Nation’s one megawatt solar panel project, launched in Aug. 2020, is one way to start.
Fisher River Cree Nation’s solar panel project is the largest of it’s kind in Manitoba, according to their website.
The majority of the funding came from Fisher River Cree Nation, $2.4 million dollars, as well as contribution from the Western Economic Diversification Canada, $1 million dollars, according to Fisher River Cree Nation. Manitoba Hydro partnered with Fisher River Cree Nation, and are storing the energy created by the solar panels.
“It’s not just about what choice we make, but why we’re making that choice and the awareness behind it,” said Sutherland.
Sutherland said what’s needed now is advocacy and spreading awareness of the effects of hydroelectric projects.
“We’re going to have to be changing minds, one person at a time, one article at a time,” said Sutherland.
When Manitoba Hydro projects started affecting the waters, Beardy said he and his family found other places to swim.
Beardy searched for water that was untouched by Manitoba Hydro — the Assean Lake, around 32 kilometers from Tataskweyak Cree Nation, was safe, so they swam there.
Beardy said he hopes Winnipeggers understand the greater impacts of hydro development and wants Manitoba Hydro to keep the promises it made to Tataskweyak Cree Nation — promises of collaboration and continued support.