WINNIPEG – Indigenous people continue to suffer from racism connected to hydroelectric development in northern Manitoba, the grand chief for the area said two weeks after a review found abuse and violence dating back to the 1960s.
“Our people have been oppressed. Our people have been treated as if they are second-class citizens in their own lands,” said Garrison Settee, head of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak. “There’s going to be a paradigm shift in how business is conducted in MKO territory.”
Settee was joined by Martina Saunders, an Indigenous woman who has filed a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission.
Saunders said she resigned last year from a board of directors that has been overseeing construction of Manitoba Hydro’s Keeyask generating station, because she and other Indigenous members were being ignored and bullied.
“I didn’t feel safe to voice my concerns or to speak up on behalf of my First Nation any more, sitting at that board, so I had to step down.”
Boards and committees set up by Manitoba Hydro – a provincial Crown corporation – in conjunction with Indigenous communities are ineffective because they are dominated by the utility’s representatives, Saunders said.
A spokesman for Manitoba Hydro said the corporation had been unaware of the human rights complaint.
“We are aware of Ms. Saunders’ views, but do not agree with them,” Bruce Owen wrote in an email. “We did not know until today’s media reports that she had filed a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission. We will fully co-operate with that process if it moves forward.”
A report released last month by the province’s Clean Environment Commission – an arm’s-length review agency – cited racism, discrimination and sexual abuse at Manitoba Hydro work sites in the 1960s.
Much of the development at that time was centered around the community of Gillam and the nearby Fox Lake Cree Nation.
The report said the arrival of a largely male construction workforce led to the sexual abuse of Indigenous women, some of whom said their complaints were ignored by the RCMP.
There was also racial tension, environmental degradation and an end to the traditional way of life for some Indigenous people, the report said.
Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires called the allegations disturbing and said she is referring the issue to the RCMP to examine how complaints were handled.