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Pimicikamak Cree Nation Chief John Miswagon: "Hydro Is Breaking our Hearts"

Canada’s Hydro Electricity Production Harms Indigenous People’s Lives

WINNIPEG, Canada, 23 July 2003 - A chief of the indigenous Pimicikamak people narrated here today how a hydro-electric project in northern Manitoba, Canada, has devastated the lives of his people. "Hydro is breaking our hearts," lamented Chief John Miswagon at the Tenth Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation.

Canada is the world’s largest producer of hydro-electricity. Many people in Canada may brag about this as a major achievement until they consider the resulting devastation caused by the industrial complexes to the environment and to the lives of the indigenous people.

The Churchill Nelson Rivers’ Manitoba Hydro project was built in early 1970s by the Manitoba Hydro and the Government of Manitoba to generate electricity for domestic use and for export to the U.S. Midwest. Manitoba Hydro reportedly generates more than USD 680 million per year – 36 percent of it from sales to utility companies of northern states of the United States.

In 1966 the Canadian Federal Royal Commission on Aboriginal People’s reported that the project has "subsequently become well known for its massive scale and detrimental effect on the northern Manitoba environment and the Aboriginal people who live there…"

The report further stated that reserve territories occupied by the indigenous people had been "either flooded or affected by dramatic changes to levels in surrounding lakes and rivers," and traditional land-use areas have been "damaged or rendered inaccessible."

Miswagon, the chief of the Pimicikamak Cree Nation of about 6,500 people, claimed that the project has denied his people of their subsistence – food, water, shelter and medicine. Shorelines have been washed away and forests have been swallowed up by rising levels of water, he said.

The hydro-electric system includes dams, generating stations, river diversions, flooded forests, reservoirs and transmission lines. As lakes and rivers are flooded, emptied or used, the industrial water regime destroys the boreal shoreline ecosystem – the most productive and most sensitive part of the boreal environment, upon which all the rest depends.

About 1,000 square miles of boreal forest have been flooded and destroyed, according to a report on the State of the Manitoba Environment published in 1991. The Pimicikamak, once a healthy society with a sustainable traditional economy, now has catastrophic unemployment, mass poverty, despair and one of the highest suicide rates in North America, according to community leaders.

The environmental degradation has gone hand-in-hand with water pollution, which has made the rivers and the lakes uninhabitable for fish, he said. "In 1960, there were 30 fresh water lakes in the area," he said. "Today, there are only 12."

Standing side by side with Chief Miswagon, Women’s Chief Eugenie Mercredi could not hold back her tears as she presented samples of visibly unsafe water, which, she said, her people drink from the polluted rivers and lakes.

The two chiefs acknowledged that Canada has laws to protect the interests and rights of indigenous populations, but some companies "violate these laws and get away with it."

However, said Chief Miswagon, Manitoba Hydro has offered to monitor the state of the environment and to become involved in conservation efforts.

He appealed to "the whole world" to work together to restore and preserve the environment. "We may never be able to make it right," he said, "but, certainly, we can make it better."

The Pimicikamak have suggested a five-point approach to stop and reverse the devastation:

  • Clean up the environmental and social mess created by hydro-electric energy generation;

  • Face the social impacts of the hydro project (shoreline erosion, mercury poisoning, greenhouse gases, loss of forests to erosion and water fluctuations);

  • Prevent further harmful hydro-electric projects;

  • Support development of cleaner and safer energy options, such as conservation, efficiencies, wind, solar and biomass;

  • Help to widen respect for indigenous peoples working to protect their environments.

The Tenth Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) is taking place 21-31 July 2003 in Winnipeg, Canada, under the theme "For the Healing of the World." It is being hosted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC).

There are around 820 men, women and youth participants in the Tenth Assembly including 380 delegates from the 133 churches with full membership and three associate members. The Assembly is the highest decision-making body of the LWF, and meets normally every six years. Between Assemblies, the LWF is governed by its Council that meets annually, and by its Executive Committee.

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