Breaking Trail

Helping Manitoba Hydro incorporate Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge into its environmental impact statements was only the start of the challenge.

In the Nelson House Resource Management Area in northern Manitoba, there is a traditional Cree dancing circle. Here, at this place of sacred importance to the Cree people, members of the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (NCN) invited senior officials from Manitoba Hydro (including both its President/CEO and Chairman), representatives from InterGroup Consultants and others in the summer of 2000. The invitation came in the midst of negotiations between NCN and Manitoba Hydro to form a partnership for the development of a new 200-megawatt generating station on the Burntwood River, the first partnership of its kind in Canada.

“They had decided on that day they were going to take us to their dancing circle, one of the most spiritual sites that they have,” recalls Ryan Kustra, past manager of Manitoba Hydro’s environmental impact assessments for Keeyask and Conawapa Projects and coordinator of Manitoba Hydro’s partnership negotiations with NCN. “Inviting us was their highest way of showing generosity to us, as well as their desire to have much more than just a business relationship.”

Clark Lake

(Keeyask Clark Lake)

That the invitation was even extended by NCN is remarkable given the strong feelings that existed at the time against Manitoba Hydro among many First Nations communities in Northern Manitoba. After all, it was Manitoba Hydro that had adversely impacted their traditional fishing, hunting and trapping grounds in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s when it had built a series of dams without today’s concern for the environment or consultation with the people who would be affected. The resulting substantial effects on livelihoods and communities would lead to the creation of the Manitoba Northern Flood Agreement in 1977, a document that would start the process of remediation and reconciliation. One thing the Northern Flood Agreement could not do, however, was dampen the distrust many communities felt, and continue to feel, for Manitoba Hydro.

“We’re talking about a corporation that has been involved in the area for half a century, and whose relationship with First Nations people hasn’t always been positive,” says Kustra. “Back in the 50s and 60s the regulatory regime wasn’t in place, especially in regards to environmental assessment. It was a different era, expectations were different and Manitoba Hydro operated within what was understood and expected at that time.”

Unfortunately, says Kustra, the legacy of cynicism and distrust from that era would be the tallest hurdle that would have to be overcome for Wuskwatim and other hydroelectric projects in the north to proceed. What was needed was a new model for dialogue between Manitoba Hydro and partnering First Nations. To help, Manitoba Hydro reached out to InterGroup, especially for assistance on public engagement and for the assessment of effects on people for the Wuskwatim, Keeyask and Conawapa Projects. Wuskwatim was successfully assessed, licensed and developed; Keeyask is currently awaiting approval following the regulatory review process; and the Conawapa assessment is still proceeding.


(Keeyask Field Trip)

“When we selected InterGroup for the team, it was pretty obvious they were bringing something other companies weren’t able to bring us,” says Kustra. “Specifically, they brought an understanding of our industry, our company and how we were trying to change our relationships in the north. They also brought a willingness to embrace the new approach that we were taking with the environmental assessment process, even though it was untested.”

With that “new approach”, the local Cree communities shared responsibility for planning and implementing the environmental assessment, agreeing on methods to address potential undesirable effects, and explaining and defending the results through the regulatory process. One important requirement of government regulations is now to include something called “Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge” (ATK) within Manitoba Hydro’s environmental impact statements (EIS) going forward. Adding to the challenge was the fact that ATK was to be given equal weight to science in the EIS, even though there was a paucity of experience in doing this in a meaningful way.

“There was an awful lot of discussion with the First Nation communities about how to incorporate ATK in the environmental assessment process,” recalls Janet Kinley, a principal with InterGroup and lead consultant to Manitoba Hydro on the Wuskwatim and Keeyask environmental assessments. “The notion of incorporating ATK through a working collaboration between the communities and Manitoba Hydro was going far beyond what we saw any other developer doing. We didn’t have any examples elsewhere in Canada to follow or literature to consult. It was very much breaking trail.”

According to Kinley it quickly became apparent that ATK was not a universal set of knowledge common to all Aboriginal communities. Rather, ATK was something that is both localized and relative; something that had to be left up to each Aboriginal community to define for itself.

“It was a very important vantage point to recognize that First Nations communities are in the driver’s seat here; that ATK belongs to them both collectively and individually,” says Kinley.

As varied as each community’s approach to ATK was, common to all was their commitment to responsible stewardship of the environment, something that Manitoba Hydro itself was also committed to. The problem was few believed Manitoba Hydro when it said so.

“There was a natural skepticism among the communities at the beginning on both projects that Manitoba Hydro would try to do a sell job on them; that we might not take seriously their concerns or we would try to diminish what the potential adverse effects of the projects could be,” said Kustra. “Janet (Kinley) kind of held my hand through the process at the beginning, when it was not just about doing the work but also building the relationship and trust.”

Keeyask Thompson PIP 2013-8

(Keeyask Generation Project Public Involvement Program – Round 3 Thompson Open House)


(Keeyask Generation Project Public Involvement Program – Round 3 Winnipeg Open House)

According to Kinley developing trust did not happen overnight, and required a diligent approach to overcome the adversarial “us and them” nature of the very early discussions.

“Breaking down those walls happened gradually over years,” says Kinley. “It wasn’t just a few meetings. It took dogged determination to continually turn the other cheek when someone was expressing anger or frustration over what had happened in the past, as well as recognizing where that emotion was coming from. Our underlying approach at every meeting was to make sure that we were always dealing with each other respectfully as human beings – that was fundamental. We also made sure to listen very, very carefully to what they were telling us, and then show them that we had heard.”

Keeyask Clarke Lake area excavation

(Keeyask Clark Lake Area Excavation - photo courtesy of Manitoba Hydro)


(Keeyask Gull Lake Survey - photo courtesy of Manitoba Hydro)

“One of the lovely things about the Cree Nations we worked with is their notion that no matter how difficult the meeting, at the end you stand up and you shake everyone’s hand or give them a hug.”

Another important approach InterGroup employed, especially when negotiations became deadlocked on a particular issue, was to float out ideas – even controversial ones – just to get people talking again.

“One of the First Nations advisors commented on this several times,” says Kinley. “He said, ‘You guys are willing to create something just to get the discussion going, something that you might be criticized for.’ That notion of being willing to go out on a limb to try to get people talking about what needs to be discussed is definitely one of the practices we use.”

Perhaps the most effective practice was something learned from the Cree.

“One of the lovely things about the Cree Nations we worked with is their notion that no matter how difficult the meeting, at the end you stand up and you shake everyone’s hand or give them a hug,” says Kinley. “It started with NCN at Wuskwatim and then it continued with Keeyask. That simple act led to a stronger affinity for each other in the room.”

Kinley says that the environmental impact statements that came out of such meetings show that it is not only possible for ATK and Western science to coexist in the same document, they also established a new standard for how collaborative and environmentally responsible resource projects can be.

Kustra agrees, especially on the last point.

“Manitoba Hydro’s vice president in charge of these projects has always said the challenge before us isn’t to develop a project, but rather to develop partnerships that will endure,” says Kustra. “This is about doing it right. These projects are going to be here for 100 years or more and they will not only affect the people who live in the partner communities for generations to come but also all Manitobans. We must be concerned about how future generations will view what we’ve accomplished. Will they see it as a benefit or something that they wish we had not done?

“I think it says a lot about InterGroup that they are able to get to work on projects that are this challenging and dynamic. Having the support of a consulting team like that made the voyage exciting when it could have been difficult.”