Despite opposition from First Nations in northern Manitoba who are concerned about the spread of COVID-19 to their communities, this week Manitoba Hydro is replacing 700 people currently at the industry worker camp at the Keeyask dam project with up to 1,200 workers from across Canada and possibly the United States.
The provincial government has said that Northern Manitoba remains closed to non-essential travel to halt the spread of COVID-19. However, the province deemed construction of the Keeyask dam as an essential service. The four First Nations—Tataskweyak Cree Nation, Fox Lake Cree Nation, War Lake First Nation, and York Factory Cree Nation—have partnered with Manitoba Hydro to build and operate the dam but, despite legal obligations, Manitoba Hydro has not worked collaboratively to obtain consent to this most recent decision to expand operations and is ignoring requests by the four partner First Nations to limit work at the dam site because of public health concerns.
Amnesty International is calling on Manitoba Hydro to respect the rights of First Nations in northern Manitoba by complying with their request to restrict access to the Keeyask project. In particular, they must respect the recommendation from the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, an organization representing First Nations in northern Manitoba, “that the Keeyask project enact the “Care and Maintenance Mode,” which would require 250 workers and reduce the transmission of COVID-19 into Northern Manitoba.” Amnesty International is firmly in solidarity with First Nations who are peacefully exercising their rights to self-determination and territorial defense.
On May 15, Tataskweyak Cree Nation and Fox Lake Cree Nation, in traditional Cree territory, closed access roads to the Keeyask dam site to prevent the arrival of the new shift of workers and ensure the safety and wellbeing of community members. On Monday, May 18, Manitoba Hydro obtained an injunction against the First Nations, and community members and leaders upholding their responsibility to protect their territories and people according to their laws and protocols.
“Every effort must be made to contain the spread of COVID-19,” said Ana Collins, Indigenous Rights Campaign Advisor with Amnesty International Canada. “Indigenous communities in northern Manitoba are rightfully occupying and defending lands to which they still hold inherent title. Yet federal and provincial governments continue to rely upon repudiated papal doctrines of discovery and terra nullius to claim (as in the Haida decision) “assumed Crown sovereignty.”
“Therefore, arguments around the use of “crown lands” and justification for development projects in those lands are fallacies,” said Collins. “Without question, these communities have an inherent responsibility and right to control access into their territories to protect their communities from COVID-19 and prevent unsustainable pressure on healthcare systems in rural and remote areas. Governments should be applauding and actively supporting these efforts, not ignoring the concerns of First Nations and criminalizing community elders and leaders.”
Last month, the Coalition for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of which Amnesty International is a member, issued a statement calling for the rights of Indigenous peoples to be protected during the pandemic. It stated that: “In light of the highly infectious nature of COVID-19, and the particular threat that it poses to vulnerable communities with inadequate access to health care, housing, water and other essential services, it is imperative that federal, provincial and territorial governments respect the right of Indigenous peoples to set conditions of entry into their territories. Indigenous communities must be able to restrict access of industry workers, tourists, cottagers, and others. Where Indigenous communities have required suspension of certain activities in their territories, this must be respected.”
This is not the first time that Manitoba Hydro has violated the rights of First Nations. Decades of Manitoba Hydro operations in the north of the province are associated with harms to the land, water, and animals, as well as profound adverse impacts on the health, safety, and wellbeing of Indigenous peoples. The impacts include a heightened risk that Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people will experience violence.
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