Citizens Organize Their Own Public Inquiry

By the early 1970s it was full speed ahead for Manitoba Hydro Corporation‘s projects to “develop” Manitoba’s great rivers and lakes. These ancient waters flowing to Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean were going to be “better managed“ so as to serve as reservoirs for generating hydro electricity. The corporation was re-engineering the waters, shorelines and life along tens of thousands of miles of rivers, creeks, wetlands and lakes. This in order to raise and lower water levels for the efficiencies of hydro generation. More importantly, there would be jobs, for a while. There would be increased electricity for the province, and profitable electricity exports to the United States. What reasonable objections could be made? Besides, most of the ecological effects, which would be not worth mentioning, would be in the far north. And what was up there but a handful of aboriginal communities? If they couldn’t be ignored, could they not be bullied, bribed or threatened? Or all three together? And in the south, where most taxpayers live, who would care one way or the other?

Communities and leaders of South Indian Lake, Nelson House, Split Lake, Norway House, Cross Lake, York Landing and others most immediately affected, received but a passing nod, even though these machinations were drastically altering the rivers and lakes, which were their “life,” underlying their very way of being. Here they fished for food and livelihood, and shorelines were integral to livelihoods of trapping and hunting. But in its near destruction they were given no voice. Even though the nature’s geography was being re-engineered and the geography of the heart of these communities traumatized, the northern communities were not given a place at the table where these decisions were being made. They were like many other land-based communities around the world being affected by massive “resource” projects: hydro-electric; forestry or mining. They too sought to resist. In 1974, they organized the Northern Flood Community. Several communities had already begun to explore legal action.

 In 1973, United Church elders from South Indian Lake and sister communities called for the United Church in the south of the province to join in their emerging struggle. In the summer, a working group from the south of the province of three United Church clergy (Jack McLachlan, Ian Macdonald, Bob Haverluck) gathered, and recruited a Franciscan priest (Brian Teixeira) and Mennonite Central Committee’s Menno Wiebe to make up a core group. “How do we educate ourselves and others in the rest of the province to devastating effects on the northern waters and life being caused by Hydro’s mega projects? How do we in the southern churches organize to nurture support for the northern communities being so unjustly treated?” These were key questions the little group began with, the Inter-Church Task Force on Northern Flooding(ICTFNF).



Even before Jack McLachlan pulled the task force together, he had spent the summer visiting and seeing and listening to the local citizenry as to what Hydro had been doing to the rivers, lakes and the communities whose life and livelihoods were so tied.

During the first months, the Task Force spent much time listening to the experiences of the northern communities. The group knew it only had enough knowledge to begin, but needed much more to continue wisely. It learned more about the inseparability of re-designing rivers and undermining lives of people, forests, animals and all. Example! Where Hydro turned a lake or river into a permanent or temporary reservoir, it often meant holding the water level above the established shoreline for long periods during the summer and fall. This seemingly innocuous act was to have devastating effects on those who were made to live through it. This routinely meant melting the permanently iced earth that stabilized the banks of the shore. When the permafrost  melted, the earthen shorelines would crumble, slump. “Slumping” meant great areas of forest collapsing and washing into the waterways. Slumping meant, and still means, that these traditional water highways and fishing grounds have half submerged trees and trees roots fouling them and making passage treacherous and fishing nets entangled. In the winter, the trappers’ frozen shoreline highway became virtually impassable. And this says nothing of the life of fish and animals for whom 150 meters on each side of the shoreline is the lifeline. And as well so for the livelihoods of fisher and hunter gatherer folk. “Fifty thousand miles of life creating and life supporting shorelines…” were to be devastated by this stage of the project. Learning #7, “Slumping” and its many consequences.

The Task Force had conversations with the Manitoba Hydro representatives who presented their pictures of what was happening. And we presented ours. Also at this time, the Anglican and United Churches worked together on Project North, a southern based working group to help educate the south to the issues of first nation’s land claims in Canada’s north. As well, the McKenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry was in many peoples’ minds. Chief Justice John Berger in exemplary fashion had been listening to all parties, interest groups in the proposed gas pipeline. It was to run south along the McKenzie River Valley. Hydro Quebec was in the news for their mega-project in the James Bay area. Then as now, resource exploitation projects of every kind usually involved major damage to the life of land-based tribal peoples. For their life and livelihood is inseparable from the well being of the earth and waters of their ancient homes. In short, issues of just treatment for the peoples and the earth was then a matter of some importance to the media, and was in the air, so to speak. The era of the civil rights movement in the US, and the anti-Vietnam war movements also, helped create a milieu for questioning and confronting injustices. Encouraging also was a persistent undercurrent of socially engaged folk music including Buffy St. Marie singing us along with such songs as “Where have all the buffalo gone?”

Like other business interests around the country and world, Manitoba Hydro was getting over the initial surprise and confusion at pockets of opposition. It began its push-back. Then, as now, it poured money into public campaigns to forestall widespread opposition. The “Hydro Newsletter,” which went to every customer with their monthly bill, became a propaganda tool. Then there were a host Hydro “public information” events in the “south.” As a member of the Task Force who attended gatherings in the towns of Morden and St. Rose, I got to see the sophistication of the corporation’s “public relations” spokesmen. They were pleasant and articulate. They impressed with their large coloured graphics, describing t“he technologically impressive series of river diversions, majestic dams and generating stations. There was a free lunch, free pens, notepads and several coloured brochures for “information.” The brochures showed heroic men and technology taming the wild waters and putting them to good use. These waters, which seemingly served no real purpose since the beginning of time, were now finally, thanks to Hydro, proving profitable.

King of Bigger & More

King of Bigger & More

Even decades ago, the corporation’s investment in “public relations” and the framing of events into a self aggrandizing tale was striking. The presenters skillfully used language to downplay the “collateral damage” of the project. I recall presentations, going something like this:

As for the damage being done to communities along the rivers and lakes: fishermen are be paid money, good money to replace their nets. There is money being  paid for inconveniences to trappers. Sure, a few have gone through the ice. One or two may have drowned, supposedly because of Hydro lowering water feet below where the ice has formed. And that is a tragedy, an accident we all feel very badly about.

This ploy is of course to seemingly acknowledge the problem. Then, in the next breath, to reduce it to a matter of money or unpredictable side effects.

Sometimes, the PR spokesman would work with our society’s racist narrative that treaties aren’t contracts or responsibilities, only generous handouts and sinister entitlements:

Besides, these Indian Reserves will be getting free electricity for several years.  Don’t have to pay a thing. Of course, there are some who say, ‘There you go spoiling the natives again. Giving them all kinds of handouts and special favours. But I say, ‘Everybody has got to give a little. And Manitoba Hydro is giving a little. Its a win, win,for everybody’.

Of course there was the PR spin device #3, the “False Either/Or” to distort the arguments of their critics:

As for our critics, they would have us live without electricity. They want us all to go back to living in caves and freezing to death. I for one say you the ordinary people of Manitoba know better than that.

In 1974, as in 2014, you could hear a very popular PR tactic of the apparently open  and responsive Manitoba Hydro spokesman. This tactic may sound familiar to those in the shadow of oil, mining, lumbering, etc., projects. Rashly I imagine a PR handbook somewhere that coaches something like this:

 Your public presentation is most effective when the spokesman begins by ‘speaking as a family man, a father or mother, like everybody in this room’. Of course, the objective is for the listener to forget that the massive, secretive, largely unaccountable organization is not this personable, pleasant face. And the audience must forget, if they can’t sympathize  with, the corporation when, for example, it comes to getting documents disclosing environmental and social damage and costs etc. Then, understandably, the friendly responsive corporation must become faceless and inaccessible. Suddenly, the corporation is a  business. For good reason, a business  can’t have every Tom, Dick and Harry helping themselves to privileged and sensitive details that will put the business plans at risk. And don’t forget to mention that our economy benefits big time, big dollars from this crown corporation that it deserves to transcend mere public accountability.

This plays best if the spokesman speaks in a hurt voice, then moves to a conciliatory adult voice. ‘It really hurts me that you’d think that we would do anything that would not be for the well being of all citizens. Especially the less fortunate among us. So let the critics stop their negative and unproductive blame game. This is not a game! And I’m sure you are too smart to be fooled by the mis-information spread by well-meaning but uninformed idealists and a handful of complainers and well paid lawyers. Instead, we invite your positive suggestions and attitude. Then we can all share in solutions to the little problems that arise. Let’s put the old mistakes behind us. We may have made a few, but who hasn’t? Let’s talk about the positive things we are building. Lets all be part of the solution.

'Oh pardon me ...'

‘Oh pardon me …’

In early 1975, the possibility of all working together through a public forum on Hydro’s projects and their impacts emerged. The provincial governments own Water Commission was scheduled to hold hearings. Then the government announced that they were disbanding the Water Commission, and no hearings would be held. Surely the benefits of the project to all were obvious. Hearings would be an unnecessary  expense and potential  delay of the project’s schedules.

Short days after the government shut down its scheduled hearings, the inter-church task force met. Frustration at the ending of a possible government sponsored public discussion of these crucial matters left us downcast. Now, it happened that Brian Teixeira had been reading about an international citizen’s panel struck to investigate war crimes in Vietnam and Cambodia. It had arisen from concerned citizen’s groups in the UK and Europe. With that in mind, Brian suggested that we organize public hearings. We could sponsor gatherings bringing together all interested parties, including Manitoba Hydro.

At this time (1975), the churches involved had a track record of engaging social issues fairly. As well, we had spent over a year in conversation with northern communities, Hydro executives, as well as Hydro public relations spokesmen. There had been correspondence back and forth seeking information and just procedures. There had been preaching on this issue as well as congregational discussions and articles in our national church magazines. And given that the related issues were in the air from different regions of Canada, we thought there would be interest in such hearings.  Wide interest aside, what more creative response could we make to the situation given the modest power and resources we could offer to the situation?

We soon realized that there were many scientists who would be ready to share their  research on the Hydro projects and their devastating effects on the life of lakes, rivers and shorelines. Social impacts of such projects had been documented and reflected upon. Furthermore, folks from the effected communities desperately needed an opportunity to have their voices heard in the south. There was much wisdom and experience going unshared and unattended to. The hearings could provide places and times for Hydro’s massive re-engineering of Manitoba’s great waterways to be evaluated by other than Hydro engineers and business minds behind closed doors. But how was this best to be done? How could the hearings establish their credibility in the face of their dismissal and criticism by the ruling government for whom Hydro was, and still apparently is, beyond any substantial criticism or wide public accountability?

The ICTF pulled together enough money to hire a part time co-ordinator for the hearings, recent law graduate Bruce Parker. Early on, the problem of credibility was given a big boost. The head of the Manitoba Supreme Court, Chief Justice C. Rhodes Smith retired from the bench. He agreed to chair the Inter-church Task Force Hearings on Northern Flooding. As well, he would write a final report with recommendations for a just settlement of the various disputes involved.

Besides the retired Chief Justice, there was a panel to receive, question and comment on presentations. They consisted of an aboriginal spiritual leader, an aboriginal trapper, a water engineer, a political economist (who partook in the McKenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry), a bishop. The hearings would begin in Winnipeg, in September, in a Catholic church basement. They would reconvene in the northern community of Nelson House in September in the United Church. The hearings would be held in the languages of Swampy Cree, Saulteaux, Ojibaway and English with translators provided. This included the language of the elders, which had been ignored by Hydro when it flew in to effected communities to announce Hydro’s plans for their future.

From the time the hearings were announced, the position of the government was that the hearings lacked any legitimacy as they were initiated by citizens and not the government. Although the government and its crown corp[oration were asked to attend, they would not. Credibility would not be given by their attendance. Regardless, the Inquiry indicated that it would proceed even if some of the invited parties chose not to attend. On the evening before the hearings began, a phone call was received from the government Minister in charge of Hydro. Minister Syd Green indicated that he wanted standing and the right for him and Hydro’s chief lawyer Stewart Martin to question presenters the following morning and throughout the hearings. The demand-like request was graciously granted. Ten minutes before the hearings began, the minister and lawyer arrived, briefcases in hand. They were given their very own table at the front of the hall.

The first presenter in Winnipeg and the near-to-last presenter in Nelson House show a silver thread that ran through the hearings. As I recall, the first public presenter was  from Split Lake. He began by telling of his father’s daily trek from his little house down to the lake to fetch a first pail of water for washing and for tea and cooking. This water, before hydro had begun its constructions nearby, had been beautifully clear. And since then, the water was muddy and refused to settle. And drinking that water often made his father feel sick. At this point, the lawyer for the Manitoba Hydroelectric Corporation, a crown corporation of the Government of Manitoba stood up.

Politely the speaker paused to let the distinguished lawyer in the three-piece suit and very nice shoes speak. And the lawyer spoke succinctly and forcefully.

SIR…I trust you are NOT suggesting that you can PROVE that MANITOBA HYDRO  MUDDIED THE WATER in your father’s pail.

The near-filled hall, with radio, TV and newspaper reporters included was silent. Calmly, quietly came the reply,

One thing I know for sure, the beavers didn’t do it.

The laughter was immense.

The near-to-last presenter on the last day of hearings at the United Church in Nelson House was  a very soft spoken native elder, Leta MacDonald. As she was finishing her last words, she pointed out through the windows of the church at the lake-like river, the nearby forests across the water and near the church, and at the homes round about . Then she said, as I recall, “When Jesus left the earth, he said, I leave you my peace, he didn’t say, I leave everything to Manitoba Hydro.”

 Many good things resulted from this first citizen’s public inquiry in Canada. Several came out of the retired Chief Justice’s final report. Not by legal power, but by moral and public persuasion. One recommendation was that Hydro cease dividing communities by giving favourable compensation to some and not to others. Rather that Hydro negotiate with community representatives. A second recommendation was that Hydro recognize and negotiate with the Northern Flood Committee, which represented the main effected communities. These among other recommendations were eventually accepted. So in its own way it contributed to the eventual Northern Flood Agreement between the northern  first nations communities, Manitoba Hydro and the governments of Manitoba and of Canada (who carried responsibilities not only because of the Indian Act but also because of its duties of oversight of major waterways).

Besides involving the public at the hearings themselves and through the media , the enquiry also modeled a vehicle for public participation in other domains. As the powers-that-be pour more money into “public relations/communications” for purposes of insuring that “their story gets heard” again and again, the task of insuring informed and vital public  discussion continues to be challenging. Public sponsored enquiries that can establish their legitimacy can at times be a timely event and happening to engage the public.

A further important impact of this initiative was its education and effect in propelling many of us who participated close in, to continue in such struggles. The importance of that participation, as against simply “being informed” and lamenting the situation is crucial. To engage any struggle actively, up from the chair, ironically makes the issue existentially less daunting. Less overwhelming. It also breaks the participants isolation and gives them a ongoing community, which is also of crucial importance for the long haul. Notably also, the greater education and understanding, I believe, happens in the unfolding of the events , responses and reactions.

In Manitoba, 2014, Manitoba Hydro and the provincial government proceed to engineer more of Manitoba’s waterways and the devastation of the surrounding shorelines, forests and creatures.They do this while continuing to downplay alternative means of energy, such as wind generation or selective solar generation. The public relations dollars and devices for undermining  public criticism and subverting opposition to such projects have become larger and more relentless. So the challenge of not only “speaking truth to power”, but joining with those of little power to speak and act remains. No less necessary is the ongoing debunking of the misleading stories and imaging around Hydro’s  latest projects. Maybe it helps to live in a land where it snows repeatedly, you come to believe certain tasks just need doing again and again.

Talking Water Project|Bob Haverluck (2014)

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