Put the $160 million in perspective

December 7, 2009

And Manitoba depends on the next generation of dams for export energy sales.

Hydro projects come with consequences. Nothing is clean and nothing is green, especially in this era of global warming. Negotiations are an integral part of the process to launch the three multibillion-dollar megaprojects: Conawapa, Keeyask and Wuskwatim.

To suggest there is something amiss with Hydro ratepayers bankrolling the process for First Nations ignores the legal and political realities of Manitoba’s terrain and demographics—the requirement for compensation to the people whose territory pays the biggest price for hydro development. (Similar to those whose homes flooded last spring. After all, it is the taxpayers who ultimately pay the compensation.)

The Northern Flood Agreement was Manitoba’s Clayoquot Sound, except the consequences were borne by First Nations, not industrial loggers. The “B.C. War in the Woods” was paid for by loggers; “Manitoba’s War of the Waters” was paid by First Nations.

The Northern Flood Agreement was Manitoba’s answer, after the dams were built, to compensate First Nations for their losses.

The losses are almost incalculable in terms of lives, livelihoods, destruction of land, cultures, and local economies. The damage, along with historical factors like residential schools, are all part of the dysfunctions we see with every suicide and tragedy to this day.

Manitoba is taking a proactive stance with Conawapa, Keeyask and Wuskwatim by involving First Nations before the dams are built. The consequences of compensating First Nations for damages afterwards would be a lot higher than $160 million.

Governments in Canada are obligated by treaties to consult First Nations on issues that affect them. There are court cases that now recognize the value of traditional knowledge as well as fiduciary responsibilities, all of which add up to a hefty legal requirement to include First Nations in discussions about their traditional territories, which is the right thing to do by any government.

Poverty on First Nations means communities can’t meet provincial requirements for legal and expert testimony to present their cases.

The system of negotiation requires information to be compiled in presentations that satisfy government and court requirements. The system is designed to balance off competing interests and find common ground in a way everyone can understand.

First Nations have paid in lives and livelihoods as a consequence of flooding due to reservoirs and water level regulations that interfere with the pursuit of trapping, hunting, fishing and other traditional activities. Far better to encompass the First Nations as equal partners. Nobody would say the playing field is now equal because of them, but we are working toward that goal.

In fact, $160 million is a bargain no matter how you look at it.

Take the cost of construction: Projected costs to build Wuskwatim are currently $1.3 billion while the deal with First Nations was $39.6 million as of November, approximately three per cent of the total cost. The estimated in-service cost for Conawapa is $5 billion, with First Nations receiving $1.5 million or 0.3 per cent. Keeyask’s cost estimate is $4.6 billion while First Nations receive $109 million or just over two per cent. We also wanted to know the ultimate payout from hydro development of First Nation resources.

In 2008, Manitoba signed a $2-billion power deal with Wisconsin and pegged projected revenues from the new northern megaprojects at $5.5 billion over 10 years.

With exports representing approximately 40 per cent of total revenues, that means hydro revenue works out to $1.48 billion a year.

For people who worry there is an aboriginal industry getting rich off regulatory requirements for consultation and accommodation, we’d ask them to consider whether society should work with us or against us. We prefer partnership as we have always done. Remember the treaties.

Ron Evans is the grand chief of the Manitoba Assembly of Chiefs.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 7, 2009 A12

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