Hydroelectric “development” in Canada has been criticized for the lack of meaningful consideration of community perspectives. This article shares the case of the O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation (OPCN) in northern Manitoba, Canada, and the impact of mainstream water resource management strategies over their culture and livelihood. Through consideration of Kistihtamahwin, OPCN’s concept of water governance, as well as the promises made in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), this article argues that the lack of meaningful consultation and engagement with local resource users as well as the concept of Kistihtamahwin has led to the destruction of a successful fishery, which resulted in severe socioeconomic loss, environmental degradation, and cultural loss in the community. We found that for meaningful application of UNDRIP in Indigenous water governance, local cultural strategies and traditional knowledge are essential.

KEY MESSAGE

  • Students will develop ability to understand the role of United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Indigenous governance, particularly in resource-extractive states.

  • Students will have a deep understanding on the value of land-based relationships in Indigenous community well-being.

  • Students will learn to differentiate between capitalist and noncapitalist perception of natural resource.

  • Students will develop deep knowledge on interconnected factors of Indigenous food and water sustainability.

INTRODUCTION

According to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) [1],

“[I]ndigenous peoples have the right to the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources and that States shall establish and implement assistance programmes for Indigenous peoples for such conservation and protection, without discrimination.” (Article 29)

The UNDRIP also pronounces that

“[I]ndigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories and other resources and that States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the Indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.” (Article 32)

In addition, two other rights that the UNDRIP recognizes are a) “the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs” (article 4) and b) “no relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the Indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return” (article 10). Indigenous perspectives of land and water governance are characterized by a unique understanding relating to identity and relationship to land, environmental knowledge, and sustainability of ecosystem [2, 3]. The UNDRIP recommends that Indigenous peoples’ rights are fully realized. It calls for effective and just implementation of the above understandings. The key question here is whether the declaration is being meaningfully applied and is it empowering Indigenous sovereignty politics in countries, such as Canada, where national economy significantly relies on natural resources extracted from and/or developed on Indigenous land?

Canada has officially adopted UNDRIP in 2016 [4]. Although some changes have been promised, the implementation of UNDRIP at the local level remains highly contentious as the act of free prior informed consent is neither endorsed by the government ([4], pp. 9–10) nor adequately considered in the implementation process of projects involving Indigenous land and water [5]. Hence, many would argue that total replacement of the colonial societal, cultural, and political systems, although it is the ideal goal, is long ways away [4].

The hydroelectric projects in northern Manitoba, Canada, are planned and executed often with little or no concern for issues such as community perspectives on environmental harm and social and community disruption, let alone considering cultural and spiritual relationships [6]. Although the issues of environmental, social, and economic damage to Indigenous communities have been raised nationally and provincially many times, with special mention to the confirmed long-term cumulative effects on communities all along the river system, little has changed regarding the impacts of such megaprojects [6]. This case study provides an idea as to how much must change in present and future hydroelectric projects based on the stipulations laid out by UNDRIP.

O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation (OPCN), located at the community of Southern Indian Lake (SIL), is a remote northern Manitoba Indigenous community that became the victim of flooding in the 1970s as a result of a hydroelectric dam that caused displacement as well as economic and environmental degradation and cultural loss [7, 8]. Community members of OPCN hold deep knowledge of the local ecosystem and managed their land and water resources long before the flooding [9, 10]. They carry an inherent responsibility toward the health of the land and river system that was gravely disturbed due to the hydro project [11]. In this article, we would like to analyze the OPCN’s unique relationship with land and water that facilitates the conceptualization of Indigenous water governance. In OPCN, the concept of Kistihtamahwin (a Cree word that means “respect for all being, both living and nonliving”) encompasses the principle of Indigenous water governance and is based on the community’s culture and knowledge. By using OPCN’s case study, we argue that mitigation of the ongoing crisis in the community requires a water governance framework that a) would allow a bottom-up equitable, transparent and responsive decision-making process and b) acknowledges the need to conceptualize water from OPCN’s cultural viewpoint, with Kistihtamahwin as a prominent means of accomplishing the goals of UNDRIP.

KISTIHTAMAHWIN: OPCN’S WATER GOVERNANCE

In OPCN, water governance is practiced through the concept of Kistihtamahwin, which means “respect for all being, both living and nonliving.” The concept signifies the idea of oneness with a community by respecting and reciprocating with nature responsibly [12]. The concept of oneness is defined by perceiving the land and entire river system as a community of human and nonhuman beings. The practice of Kistihtamahwin thus refers to all kinds of social, economic, and cultural activities that take care of the well-being of the community. The Churchill and Nelson River systems are connected to numerous bodies of water (see Map S2 in Slides) and are a means of maintaining not only cultural landscape but also social institutions, resource management, food harvest, and all forms of intracommunity relationship. Any challenge disturbing a community, water body, or practice would disturb all entities and systems tied to it. As OPCN’s late Elder Vivian Moose said, “We have families living all over north. Who wants to see the same thing happening to family?” Late Elder Vivian Moose’s comment suggests connection and cultural integration of nonhuman and human concerns. Her discussion of family reflects both the Western conception of kinship between individual humans and related communities while also going further to include nonhuman beings who are deeply connected to the people of SIL.

COMMUNITY HISTORY

Although Indigenous peoples have lived in the areas surrounding SIL for over 6,000 years, the community known as SIL was formed in the early nineteenth century ([8], p. 116). At the time of the treaty process in Manitoba, SIL was meant to receive reserve land and treaty rights [9]. However, this plan never materialized, and in 1908, SIL residents were registered as members of the nearby community of Nelson House Cree Nation, now Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (NCN), under Treaty 5 [9].

In Canada, numbered treaties provide promises of mutual benefit that guarantee Indigenous signatories rights to hunting, fishing, and use of reserve lands and Crown territory while also providing some basic supplies [13]. However, the treaties were constructed under Canadian imperialist interest and did not ensure equal share of resources and territory [14].

People living around SIL were self-sufficient even after their inclusion in NCN’s treaty [8]. In 1942, the establishment of a commercial fishery in the area supported the growth of a stable economy and culturally appropriate livelihood ([7], pp. 112–113). Before flooding, social, cultural, and economic relationships were connected through water, and SIL’s connection to the Churchill and Nelson Rivers supported these relationships. The lake and connected rivers were integral to the livelihood, sustenance, economic stability, culture, and kinship relations of the community [11].

Beginning in the 1950s, the Canadian government initiated industrial “development” in northern Manitoba ([7], p. 19). Following the continued construction of hydropower stations in southern Manitoba, the provincial government began the process of establishing generating stations in the north, while also creating the Crown Corporation of Manitoba Hydro (MBH) in the early 1960s [15]. As the MBH looked the northern region for major hydroelectric projects, they initiated a review of the hydroelectric potential of the two major river systems, the Nelson River system and the Churchill River system [16]. Ultimately, these reviews recommended the diversion of waters from the Churchill River to the Nelson River through the blocking of the Churchill River at SIL and its redirection through the Rat and Burntwood Rivers to the Nelson River [7, 8] (see Map S1 in slides). This project would be known as the Churchill River Diversion (CRD) and would work in conjunction with the Lake Winnipeg Regulation project to lay the foundation for the contemporary hydroelectric arsenal in northern Manitoba [17].

As a part of this plan, CRD was designed to flood SIL by approximately 10 m, causing the complete forced relocation of the community [10]. Meaningful prior informed consent of the community was not part of this decision-making process, and the community strongly opposed the plan upon being informed [18, 19]. Chris Baker eloquently summarizes the community’s feeling in the documentary Green Green Water [20]: “We have been subject to change, change that nobody educated us on.” Opposition also came from civil societies and faculties from the University of Manitoba [18]. Through a combination of events and public opposition, the provincial government changed parties, and the newly elected New Democrat government revised the plan to a “low-level” version that would “only” flood the lake by 3 m [18]. As reported, “the community was flooded 10 feet without consent. Hundreds of residents were paid to burn down their houses and relocate” [19]. The “low-level” diversion resulted in the forced relocation of a large portion of the community, with the remaining community forced to relocate as a result of the positioning of amenities like the school in the new community location [9, 11]. The community was relocated to a different location on the shores of SIL.

Following the completion of CRD, a committee of five affected Indigenous communities formed to challenge the MBH [7]. However, as the community of SIL was technically the part of NCN, they were not given an independent position on the committee and were represented by the delegation from Nelson House [18, 21]. As a result, the community was not able to gain signatory status on the Northern Flood Agreement (NFA), a modern day treaty that provided some major promises to the affected communities [21].

Although the community did not gain independent status as an affected community in the NFA, they were presented with an Implementation Agreement for the promises made in the agreement [7]. In 1992, years after the flooding and relocation, the community received approximately $18 million from the CRD to compensate all past, present, and future damages, an amount is significantly less than they deserve. As argued by many independent consultants, they deserve minimum $75 million [7, 22].

For the MBH to use SIL as a reservoir for the arsenal of generating stations it has constructed along the Nelson River system, they required a license that was provided under the Water Power Act [19]. This license defines the parameters within which they are able to fluctuate and control the waters of SIL and the rest of the system [23]. According to the OPCN community members, the license granted MBH the ability to increase a maximum of a 2-feet drawdown of SIL during the course of a 12-month period [24]. However, in 1986, the MBH was provided with the “Augmented Flow Program” (AFP), a temporary license that gave them further control over the waters of SIL. Through AFP, the MBH increased an additional 6 inches of flooding and 2 feet of drawdown for SIL, effectively changing the 12-month fluctuation from 2–4.5 feet and allowed for this fluctuation to happen more regularly, creating greater disturbance on the lake [24]. Each year, the provincial government grants MBH’s request to operate under AFP [18]. Elder William Dysart states, “huge environmentally destructive activity every year, which would have been far less if the utility was functional as per original plan” [19].

Now, after approximately 40 years of the AFP, the MBH is attempting to gain a permanent license for operation of the CRD [24]. However, this license is not based on the original parameters of the Water Power Act in Canada, but instead on the AFP. As far as the community reports, the MBH has requested no changes. This means no changes to a program that has effectively destroyed a sustainable economy through the collapse of North America’s second largest grade A whitefish fishery [23].

Currently, SIL is also the home of OPCN [21]. The formation of the First Nation is also related to the MBH and the continued construction of generating stations in the north [9, 21]. In the mid 2000s, the MBH began the process of licensing and constructing the Wuskwatim Generating Station located in Burntwood River [16]. As a part of the Wuskwatim Project, the MBH sought partnership with NCN to gain social license and positive publicity for the project ([21], p. 136). For the MBH to form a partnership, they required a vote in NCN in favor of forming the partnership and creating the generating station [21]. However, SIL consisted of Indigenous peoples registered to NCN [21]. These members were an expected 400 “no votes” on the partnership [18]. As a result, the government allowed for the formation of a new First Nation, known as O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation, just before the partnership vote ([9], p. 562). Although it is impossible to know that actual outcome of the Wuskwatim partnership vote had OPCN not been formed, it is very possible the SIL voters registered to NCN would have swayed the vote and prevented the formation of a partnership between NCN and MBH. However, as OPCN was formed, and the SIL community members were unable to vote, the partnership was formed and the Wuskwatim Generating Station was constructed under partnership between NCN and MBH [9].

CASE STUDY EXAMINATION

The social, cultural, economic, and environmental impacts of flooding were continuous, cumulative, and severe (see Table S1 in Slides). First and foremost, a highly successful commercial fishery on SIL has completely collapsed [23, 24]. Graph S1 (see Slide 6) shows the decline in fish caught in the lake from the construction of CRD to contemporary catches. As the AFP came into effect, the fishery rapidly declined and has not recovered [23, 24].

Fishers in communities affected by the MBH’s operations in northern Manitoba report that the quality of fish is deteriorating because of mercury contamination, discoloration, and a decrease in fish catch due to flooding and blocking of the waterways [25]. Continuous and untimely fluctuation of water levels damages fish eggs and disrupts the regular spawning cycle [9]. All of these contributed to the decrease of fish production. As per the record in 2014, the fish production has fallen to one-tenth of its original harvest ([24]).

In the past, the community had 163 licensed fishers [24]. In 2013, the MBH abruptly stopped all subsidies to OPCN’s traditional harvesting program ([9], p. 563), and in 2014, the number of fishers dropped to 34 who struggle to continue this cultural practice [24].

Commercial fishing on SIL is not merely a capitalist endeavor aimed at gaining financial profit from resource exploitation. Harvesting activities on the lake were a means of providing for one’s family, harvesting a multitude of resources beyond the fish that were for sale, and a continuous exercise of the relationship established between the Indigenous peoples of SIL and their territory [8, 9, 26].

Despite the challenges, the Commercial Fishermen’s Association of South Indian Lake has been proactive in keeping the rules of sustainable harvesting and monitoring water level and temperature in different seasons to measure the impact of fish spawning after flooding to revive the fishing culture of the community (Ducharme, personal communication, 2013).

OPCN’s economy has been decimated as a result of CRD flooding. Before flooding, social welfare was nonexistent in OPCN, and now 85% of the community adults are relying on welfare [24]. As per OPCN band office records, the community of 1,200 people has only about 200 houses and a high unemployment rate. Flooding has also contributed to food insecurity and health issues leading to increased barriers to social and cultural practices (see Table S2 in Slides) [9, 10, 25].

Since the megaprojects started, the MBH has hired a number of people as labor to work in the construction project and debris cleaning projects [10]. These jobs are mostly temporary and contractual. Some community members find debris cleanup jobs as important opportunities, as it provides some temporary financial support and allows them to be on the land. However, some community elders claim that many of the jobs with the MBH are not culturally appropriate and are taking people away from land-based activities. These elders also believe that jobs, such as shoreline cleanup, do not provide youth and employees with an understanding of the entire system, only that which is related to their employment. In addition, the hydro jobs provide limited training and do not provide any scope for further skill development. Most of the OPCN community members working for the debris project in the summer are on social welfare during the winter. Community local tourists lodge, Big Sand Lake Lodge, also provides seasonal 6-week employment to hunters and fishermen. Few clerical, maintenance, and temporary positions are available in OPCN School, band office, local grocery store, and the health complex, and they are too short termed due to lack of funding and capacity building opportunities.

CONCLUSION

Through its creation, the UNDRIP provides protection and support for Indigenous water governance. In OPCN, this form of governance is effectively represented by the concept of Kistihtamahwin and practice of various land-based activities. Throughout the history of CRD operation and MBH work in northern Manitoba, concepts such as Kistihtamahwin have not been considered or given a place in decision-making. A fisherman from OPCN said, “It is a game of hide and seek with us since the CRD planning started. They say something and do something else. They invite us in a meeting and then do not want to listen to our concerns. Ignore us. Whatever you saw in public was false, whatever promise they did was lie. This is not respectful commitment; this is act of selfishness. Unfortunately, it is still continuing” (Ducharme, personal communication, 2013).

As the MBH continues to move forward with plans for more generating stations, some OPCN elders argue that they fail to consider and address the negative implications that these projects have on the hydrology of the entire system. MBH’s decision to focus strictly on the generating station’s footprint and not the regional cumulative effects of their projects provides a minimal understanding of the grave and long-lasting effects of the projects. The community recommends their knowledge be considered and given a higher position in decision-making. In addition, many in the community would like a return to the original parameters of the Water Powers Act rather than the long-term licensing of CRD under the AFP parameters. True consideration of Indigenous knowledge and inclusion of, or complete preference for, Kistihtamahwin would follow the provisions of the UNDRIP. As Canada has now adopted the UNDRIP, it is necessary for the MBH to move forward in a different way that accepts and considers Kistihtamahwin. There is a clear and vast distance that must be crossed for MBH to move from their past relations with Indigenous communities in northern Manitoba to a position that recognizes and affirms the rights laid out in the UNDRIP.

As a community, OPCN continues to show strength and resilience, voices their rights, continues cultural practices when possible, and practices Kistihtamahwin (see Table S3 in Slides). Although there is a long road ahead, the community is determined to protect their waterways for generations to come.

CASE STUDY QUESTIONS

  1. 1.

    What are the advantages and disadvantages of declarations such as United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?

  2. 2.

    In your understanding what could be the possible mitigation plan for O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation (OPCN) that could elevate OPCN social, economic, and environmental situation?

  3. 3.

    While Canada along with many other countries in the world are earning profit by producing electricity, would you support the construction of hydroelectric dams in the world? If yes, why? If not, what alternatives do you suggest?

AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS

The first author wrote the paper idea and discussed with the coauthors to outline the key arguments. The first author wrote the first draft and sent to the second author for correction and revision. After correction, review and edits from the second author, the paper was sent to the third and fourth authors. They have read and commented on the paper. We have revised the paper based on the comments and edits of the second and fourth authors. Each time we have received comments from our reviewers, the first and second authors incorporated the comments, which were approved by the third and fourth authors with necessary edits. The inclusion of the third and fourth authors has been crucial in this paper since they bring in the knowledge from the field and the community. The second author is an expert on the issue, and he provided important references required to support the community provided facts. All authors have given their permission to include their names as coauthors.

The authors are thankful to the reviewers and to all community members of O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation for sharing their knowledge.

FUNDING

The authors acknowledge the funding support of SSHRC Partnership Grant: Wa Ni Ska Tan: Cross-Regional Research Alliance on the Implications of Hydro Development for Environments and Indigenous Communities in Northern Canada.

COMPETING INTERESTS

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

SUPPORTING INFORMATION

TABLE S1. Impact of hydro flooding.

TABLE S2. Loss of traditional food resources after flooding [9, 12].

TABLE S3. Community initiatives on land-based activities.

MAP S1. Community location.

MAP S2. Northern Manitoba rivers.

GRAPH S1. Decline of fish in Southern Indian Lake [24].

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