CONSERVATION and Climate Minister Sarah Guillemard signed off Thursday on a permit that grants Manitoba Hydro a final, long-term licence to manipulate the Churchill River within the operating parameters laid out on temporary terms decades ago.
Operation of the Churchill River diversion began in 1976, on an interim licence issued under the Water Power Act. The move caused the water level of Southern Indian Lake to rise by approximately three metres, devastating ecosystems and First Nations communities in the region.
In 1986, Hydro was given permission to increase the amount of water the utility diverted from the Churchill River by 15 per cent. What has become known as the augmented flow program has allowed the Crown corporation to raise and lower the water level of Southern Indian Lake by as much as three to 4.5 feet.
All of those operations were continuously approved on a temporary annual basis.
The new final permit only needs to be renewed every 50 years after the completion of a project.
Northern First Nations communities had been lobbying the government to deny the permanent licence and reform operations surrounding the Churchill River diversion, citing ongoing devastating impacts in their communities and a lack of consultation.
A news release Thursday from Guillemard’s office says Manitoba Hydro will have new mandates for consultation with affected First Nations. However, community members are skeptical it will be pursued in a meaningful way.
“This means almost absolutely nothing to us. They just continue to destroy our environment, our fishery, our economy, but also really destroying people and families — our whole community. That’s really what this is about,” said Les Dysart, community lead on hydro issues for O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation, approximately 130 kilometres northwest of Thompson, on the shores of Southern Indian Lake.
“And by Manitoba granting a final licence and saying Hydro will address these concerns is absolutely meaningless to us. That’s what they’ve been saying for 40 years,” he told the Free Press.
“I’m outraged, but it was predictable. This is how this premier addresses valid Aboriginal concerns — he does not care. And he’s quite willing to gamble with ratepayers and taxpayers resources.”
The statement from Guillemard’s office refuted claims consultation hasn’t been pursued.
“The province has undertaken rigorous and decade-long consultations with the Indigenous communities affected. As a direct result of concerns raised, Manitoba Hydro will be held to multiple licence and non-licence conditions in the operation of these water-power licences. Consultation will continue into the future, by the province and by Manitoba Hydro.”