Disadvantaged communities are often forced into David-and-Goliath-style battles with large companies over resource rights and the impact of those companies’ actions on local resources. But increasingly that narrative takes an unexpected turn: David and Goliath are teaming up. Instead of trying to run over community resource management rights, some companies are winning local cooperation in ways that essentially subsume community management regimes within mega-development scenarios. As hydropower development in northern Manitoba attests, such cooperation is fraught with complexity.
Northern Manitoba is home to a legacy of bitter antipathy between ten Cree Indigenous communities and the government-owned electric utility, Manitoba Hydro. Over the past 60 years, Manitoba Hydro has constructed hydropower projects which have fundamentally altered the five largest rivers in the province and six of the twelve largest lakes. For many years, discussion of community-based resource management was overshadowed by the fact that Manitoba Hydro had imposed changes that significantly undermined traditional trapping, hunting, fishing and gathering activities, both for domestic and commercial uses. Beginning in the 1970s, the Interchurch Task Force on Northern Flooding, which included MCC, played an important role in advocating for fair treatment of affected Indigenous people and lands. With Indigenous communities nearly unanimous in their opposition to the dams, the task force’s narrative early on was one of standing with marginalized communities and giving voice to the voiceless.
Starting around 1999, Manitoba Hydro began approaching affected communities in the vicinity of three new hydropower dams the company had long wanted to build. The provincial government said it would not proceed with the three projects without the approval of five First Nations in the vicinity. What followed was a community engagement process that cost the utility millions. In time, some Indigenous leaders revised their community narratives away from the longstanding story of grievance with Manitoba Hydro. They said they could not remain stuck in the past and they needed to rely on the rivers in a new way. Of course, other Indigenous people said there could be no justification for further damage to lands and waters. To some extent it was a choice between maintaining traditional patterns of community-based natural resource management and replacing that resource base through alignment with the financial interests of an outside corporation. The interchurch advocacy group was caught between Indigenous people on either side of the issue, some of them aggressively pushing churches to stop raising concerns about hydropower projects. Eventually, five First Nations—representing roughly one-third of the affected population—signed partnership agreements with the utility.
While Manitoba Hydro got the community approvals it wanted, the price was high. Over 15 years the utility transferred $241 million to First Nations to cover costs of lawyers, consultants, travel, meeting participation and community engagement. While this served in some sense to level the playing field, it also created a largely unaccountable and arguably biased mini-industry. Numerous well-paying jobs in impoverished Indigenous communities were dependent on continuing along the path toward partnership with Manitoba Hydro. People responsible for “consulting” their fellow community members had a direct self-interest in a particular outcome. The lines between consultation and promoting a pro-development agenda were often blurred. And while total expenditure figures are available, Manitoba Hydro has denied all requests for breakdowns of its spending on the grounds of confidentiality agreements between the utility and the First Nations. Accounts of inappropriate expenditures abound, allegedly used to provide direct personal benefit to people supporting partnership with Manitoba Hydro. Reportedly, those in favour of dams got perks while those opposed did not. Families and communities were split, leaving long-term scars. This form of community engagement also created tensions between different communities, as Manitoba Hydro’s much touted “new era” of northern relations really only extended to communities near proposed new projects, not communities still suffering from the impact of existing projects.
First Nations were also saddled with the greatest risk. Partnership agreements centered around First Nations being offered the opportunity to invest in the dams. In the case of the first dam, Wuskwatim (completed in 2013), the nearby Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation invested over $100 million—most of that borrowed from Manitoba Hydro—to leverage a 33-percent share in the $1.8 billion dam. The dam was supposed to make between $5 and 25 million annually in its early years, but instead it has lost over $100 million to date. Partly for that reason, the four First Nation partners in the $6.5-billion Keeyask dam currently under construction are expected to obtain a much smaller share in the dam than what was touted at the time the communities voted on the partnership. The utility itself faces little risk as rate increases can cover losses.
On the plus side, hydropower construction has created significant and desperately needed employment. The catch, of course, is that the employment is temporary. At last report, only two members of the local First Nation were employed permanently at the Wuskwatim dam. Hydropower dams are by nature capital rather than labour intensive. Few people are required for ongoing operation. That makes them a poor match for communities that are capital poor with high levels of available labour.
Part of the problem with the hydropower engagement process is that communities were in essence forced to choose between poverty and ill-suited mega-projects. Arguably, a third option could have involved a diverse suite of possibilities, including maximum Indigenous employment at existing northern hydropower facilities and a range of smaller ventures based in part on emerging social enterprise models, with capital inputs from the utility. Such enterprises could have included small-scale logging, energy retrofits for homes, local food production, thrift stores or maximization of traditional harvesting. Generally these types of third options are ignored.
Several learnings about community-corporate partnership in natural resource management can be gleaned from the northern Manitoba example:
- Society owes disadvantaged communities a creative range of economic options;
- According to the emerging concept of free, prior and informed consent, communities should be brought into open-ended processes about natural resource management early on. In this Manitoba example, the utility and its parent government were clearly seeking their desired outcome right from the start;
- Full accountability for all spending is essential;
- An independent study should look at the real costs and benefits of such mega-projects for impacted communities over time.
- Any benefit-sharing arrangements should minimize community risks; and
- The higher the stakes, the greater the inherent potential for tension.
As for NGOs like MCC seeking to support disadvantaged communities, they must accept the complexity of such situations and discard simplified narratives. Given the very high stakes in such situations, NGOs, which have far less vested interest than other parties, can create space for candid, non-polarized discussion. To the extent possible they should maintain rapport with all parties while maintaining their own independent voice. They must also be willing to absorb criticism from community leaders. NGOs can serve as a needed counterweight to corporate interests which bring an innate bias to these situations. The bottom line for communities and NGOs is to embrace the complexity; to candidly consider pros, cons and trade-offs of different options; and to find healthy ways to navigate the tensions that arise when community-based values collide with the dependence we all have on the sorts of mega-projects that threaten Indigenous communities and their traditional resources.
Will Braun lives in Morden, Manitoba and works for the Interchurch Council on Hydropower. He has previously worked on issues related to hydropower for MCC and Pimicikamak Cree Nation.
Thibault, M., and Hoffman, S.M. Eds. Power Struggles: Hydroelectric Development and First Nations in Manitoba and Quebec. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2009.
Waldram, James B. As Long as the Rivers Run: Hydroelectric Development and Native Communities. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1993.
Braun, Will. “Keeyask Dam on Shaky Political Foundation: Split Lake Residents Have Good Reason to Wonder What Became of Promised Millions.” Winnipeg Free Press (July 3 2012). Available at http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/analysis/keeyask-dam-on-shaky-political-ground-161181735.html
Braun, Will. “Dam Deal Loses Shine: First Nations Gambled on Bold Talk of Prosperity.” Winnipeg Free Press (April 24 2014). Available at