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Power struggles on the Manitoba border (03/05)

Northwestern First Nations communities want to be main developers in hydro electric development projects. They see it as a means to achieve economic self-sufficiency.
Northwestern First Nations communities want to be main developers in hydro electric development projects.

They see it as a means to achieve economic self-sufficiency.

But with the province’s new energy development policy, First Nations say hydroelectric initiatives are being taken out of their hands and given to government-approved industry developers. Instead of Aboriginal communities being the lead in hydroelectric projects, industry is.

It is not sitting well.

“It is history repeated over and over and over again, since the signing of Treaty 9,” says Bentley Cheechoo, senior policy advisor on the energy portfolio for Matawa First Nations.

“All the natural resources are at the hands of somebody else. When it comes to ourselves, we have nothing.”

Through the development process, Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Grand Chief Stan Beardy wanted assurances that the 50 communities he represents could become a majority proponent in hydro resource projects.

When the final document was announced, NAN and the Matawa First Nations publicly stated their collaborative rejection of the proposed Hydro Site Allocation policy.

The Hydro Site Allocation policy from the Ministry of Natural Resources focuses on financial, technological, public and First Nations participation.

“The objective is to become self sufficient so First Nations can create their own wealth,” Beardy says.

“The legislation prevents us from participating in the economy (as a major player).”

NAN covers two-thirds of Ontario. North of the 50th parallel is virtually undeveloped, while South of the 50th has been depleted of natural resources, Beardy says.

The opportunity for Aboriginal communities to have ownership of hydro sites and to have the ability to attain a level of selfsufficiency is not there the way they had hoped, according to Matawa First Nation Economic Development officer Michael Rae.

Although First Nations are optimistic, they are also acutely aware of how easy it would be to play a minority role once again.

While the policy document was in the formative stages Matawa First Nations suggested that a portion of the energy could be held back to attract new industry. But it may not have been well-accepted, Rae suspects. Industries in the north are well represented in the south and likely the “(energy) returns will flow into Greater Toronto, and then the North will hope we get something back in the form of tax breaks.

“And we all know how that works.”

He supposes there was a need for government to stick to what they know and that is to give everything to industry and tell them to look for First Nation community input.

Treaty 9 states the Crown and First Nations will share the natural resources and also the benefits from natural resources. Benefits translate into employment, training and opportunities for Native people. The opportunities given to them right now come into the form of a government cheque. This is not what the forefathers agreed on, Beardy says.

“We agreed to share benefits, so we can seize to be a burden for tax payers.”

While the NAN population grows at a rate of 14 per cent annually, unemployment hovers around 80 per cent overall and 90 per cent amongst the youth. The suicide rate is 10 times the national average.

“If your people are killing themselves at 10 times the national average, what is there left to lose.”

Beardy admits the region is at a breaking point. He urges government to bring legislation in that will enhance First Nations participation in the economy.

But Native self-government is as complex as it comes and Aboriginal communities within the northwest do not all share the same political view.

Pic River First Nation, the major shareholder on their third hydroelectric project, started with a Sunridge Power Corp. partnership. There is learning curve one has to endure and companies can be key instructors, economic development officer Byron LeClair says.

“You have to start off someplace and if you don’t have the financial or technological capacity to do this type of project on your own, then clearly you have to find a partner with expertise. Otherwise, you are going to be lost.”

One of the best ways to start on a path to prosperity is for each community to find an economic development officer, someone from the community who has witnessed the despair and is willing to work to build economic strength, he says. Another way is to develop a policy that gives Aboriginal communities a head start.

“(The hydro electric development policy) gives us an inside edge to these projects and we have to take advantage of it.” In effect, the minister has given First Nations hydro sites on a silver platter he says, and that is the real reason why industry is not knocking on anyone’s door anymore. He says industry developers think 25-point First Nations partnering is “crazy.”

But “any time you piss off non-Native industry, you know you have done something pro-Indian. That is how I know the minister has done something right.”