April 7 2005 CBC News
THOMPSON, MAN. – CBC News has learned Manitoba Hydro has signed off on more than $14 million worth of expenses for a northern First Nation related to a hydroelectric dam, even though the community has not yet voted on the project.
Four years ago, the Tataskweyak Cree Nation, formerly known as Split Lake, signed an agreement in principle with Manitoba Hydro to jointly build the 640-megawatt Keeyask dam at Gull Rapids on the Nelson River.
If it goes ahead, the Keeyask dam would be exporting power to the United States by 2012. The dam would cost $3.5 billion to build and would flood 46 square kilometres of land.
Manitoba Hydro needs the support of Tataskweyak Cree Nation for the project; community members are expected to vote on it later this year. But an audit obtained by the CBC shows Manitoba Hydro has already paid the band more than $14 million over the past two years for expenses related to preparing the community for Keeyask.
More than half that amount, about $7.5 million, was paid to consultants; that works out to around $10,000 a day, every day, for those two years. Another $3.7 million was spent on travel, and $3 million more was spent on, among other things, wages, video production and administration.
Amount spent shocks observers
Former chief Emile Garson said all Manitobans should watch what's going on in the north because their hydro rates are paying the bills at Tataskweyak.
"If this venture is still at its agreement-in-principle stages, why such a significant amount of money?" he asked. "Now why would anyone in their right mind decide to invest, if I may use the word, invest $14 million if this is not going to become a reality? That's a hefty sum of taxpayers' money that's being used to discuss a project that's simply at its [agreement-in-principle] stages."
Peter Kulchyski, head of the University of Manitoba's native studies department, doesn't hide his opposition to a number of Hydro developments. As for the Keeyask dam, Kulchyski said it looks to him like Manitoba Hydro is trying to buy support for its project.
"They've recognized that politically they need support of aboriginal communities. It's not feasible now, in this day and age, to go ahead with hydro development without the co-operation of the communities," he said.
"So they appear to be trying to do whatever they can to try and get the communities on board and particularly find a leadership they can work with and make sure that leadership has some money coming in to it so that its loyalty is secured and, you know, see if they can, through that, get community support."
As for the amounts being spent, Kulchyski said he couldn't believe the numbers: "Millions of dollars, on a project that the community itself hasn't ratified, at a time when we're being asked to pay more in hydro rates by the public utility … is kind of shocking to me personally."
'A good investment': Hydro
Tataskweyak Chief Norm Flett said that's what it costs to hire experts and reimburse band members for going to meetings about the project.
"In order for the First Nations to be informed, somebody has to pay," he said. "In this case, the government of Manitoba instructed Hydro to pay."
Bob Brennan, president of Manitoba Hydro, said building a dam is an expensive business. He said it costs millions to hire experts such as engineers, lawyers and environmental specialists to inform local people about the pros and cons of the dam, and his staff account for every penny spent at Tataskweyak.
"We make sure the services they're asking to be reimbursed, you know, that there was some value there. We know that from the discussions we've had from the band and their consultants, and at the end of the day, if it's reasonable, we reimburse them," he said.
"It's part of the cost of that facility. At the end of the day, this facility will make us a lot of money, and it'll keep your rates down, so we think it's a good investment."
All the costs accumulating right now will add to the final cost of the project; as future co-owners of the dam, Brennan said the members of Tataskweyak would actually have to pay back some of that money.
"Twenty per cent of their costs, if they're an equity owner of it they'll have to pay 20 per cent of the costs that they needed to get them informed about being part of the project," he said.
Brennan said the dam is not a done deal and he awaits the results of the band's referendum, expected later this year.