Original Magazine Article
The Bloodvein, a Canadian Heritage River, flows 186 miles through Manitoba’s roadless wilderness to Lake Winnipeg.
Manitoba Hydro wants to build transmission lines (that no one needs) through a proposed World Heritage site. First Nations and conservationists have a better idea.
It is the beginning of September, and my 10-year-old son Oliver and I have flown from Montreal to Winnipeg, the capital of central Canada’s province of Manitoba. We are going to spend eight days canoeing a river called the Bloodvein. This is the third Canadian river I’ve run this summer. I’ve been trying to get a sense of the vast wilderness known as the boreal, which covers 53 percent of the country’s land surface and is blanketed by one of the last still largely undisturbed forests on the planet. Dotted with 1.5 million lakes and drained by innumerable rivers, the boreal drapes across the continent, from the Yukon to Labrador, like a green collar 3,000 miles long and 600 deep.
Eleven others are going down the Bloodvein, and we all meet at the downtown offices of the Boreal Forest Network, a small but vociferous not-for-profit whose executive director, Don Sullivan, has put the trip together. Sullivan is a droopy-mustached, slow-talking, chain-smoking 49-yearold who, for 15 years, has been in the trenches advocating for the boreal and its native people, grappling with multinational corporations and provincial bureaucrats.He is a winner of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal for making an outstanding contribution to his commonwealth country, but it doesn’t seem to have gone to his head.
We first met several months earlier, when he took me and a group of activists to visit two native communities north of the Bloodvein, one of which—the Pimicikamak Cree of Cross Lake—is fighting a new series of dams that Manitoba Hydro, the province’s energy utility, wants to build. I’ve come to think of it as Manitoba’s many headed Hydro: You don’t quite know where this serpent is going to strike next, and it isn’t telling you. In addition to the new dams, Hydro wants to run several high-voltage transmission lines that would cut across a proposed UNESCO World Heritage site: 10.6 million acres, virtually untouched, on the east side of Lake Winnipeg.
The Bloodvein winds right through the proposed site, which is why we are here. It is considered by canoeing cognoscenti to be one of the top runs in Canada, not because of the technical challenge of its rapids but because of its beauty. David Pancoe, a young outfitter who is supplying the canoes, tents, and food,will be responsible for getting us down the river in one piece. Louis Young, the 48-year-old former chief of Bloodvein First Nation, a community of 1,100-some Ojibways at the mouth of the river, will be escorting us through his people’s traditional territory, which includes both banks of the Bloodvein for three miles back.
The World Heritage designation is crucial, because it would offer added protection from not only the transmission lines but also the timber and paper and mining companies, the vacation cottage developers, the hunters and snowmobilers who are dying to get in here. There are currently 788 sites in the World Heritage system. These are places of “outstanding universal value” for either natural or cultural reasons. But it is up to the 134 countries where they are located to protect them with whatever conservation laws they have in place. Canada already has 13 World Heritage sites; none include any part of Manitoba’s vast boreal forest. There are still a few years of bureaucratic hurdles that have to be cleared in Winnipeg, in Ottawa, and at UNESCO before the 10.6 million acres in question receive World Heritage status. The problem is that Hydro would love to get its transmission lines in before the designation is secured. So the race is on.
On our first night we drive about three hours northeast from Winnipeg to an old gold-mining town called Bissett. It is an isolated outpost in the forest and the farthest in you can get by car, a jumping-off point for the roadless primary wilderness. Our headlights shine into the blazing orange eyes of a great gray owl standing right near the road—the largest owl and one of the most elusive in North America: a lucky sighting. I’d love to see a merlin, too, but those little falcons are as furtive as the wolves and foxes, the pine martens, lynx,wolverines, and fishers, the abundant moose and black bear that roam the proposed World Heritage site.The largest remaining herd of woodland caribou, 500 strong, is scattered in the depths of this forest as well.There are only 7,000 of these animals, a different species from the caribou up in the tundra, and the transmission lines would traverse their migratory routes, setting the stage for their possible demise.
In the morning we fly in shifts to a lake 55 miles up the Bloodvein. Pancoe lashes the canoes to the pontoons of our float plane. Ollie and I are in the last group, and as we wait for the plane to come back, he casts a Mepps spinner into the water off the dock and ties into a thrashing 26-inch pike—or jack, as they are known in these parts—and then another. They are like freshwater barracuda, long and thin with big eyes and lots of retrorse teeth.
From the window of the float plane an ocean of trees, spattered with lakes and riddled with rivers, spreads east to the hazy vanishing point.Low granite domes,bristling with jack pine and balsam fir,offer the only visual relief.These domes are surrounded,wherever there is enough soil, by pure stands of trembling aspen, and by sinuous brown bands of muskeg with clumps of sedge, dwarf birches, and stunted tamaracks.After 20 minutes we reach the Bloodvein.
We can see that the river meanders a lot and has long stretches of quiet water. Every few miles,where it steps down another five or ten feet on its leisurely 200-mile westward journey to Lake Winnipeg, there is a rapid.Pancoe takes Ollie and me with him in the 18-footer, the largest of the six canoes, and hands me a beautiful wooden paddle, a modified beavertail made by a friend of his. Its blade widens at the top, where you grab the most water. Pancoe’s blade is short and broad, better for the quick manoeuvring that will be called for in the rapids. For five miles the river weaves serenely through marshes and muskeg. There is a lot of wild rice standing in the shallow water along its banks, and each time we round a bend, we scare up a gaggle of Canada geese that have been flattening it with their floating bellies and gobbling up the kernels, fuelling up for the long trip south they will soon be taking.
We glide past bulrushes, tall cranberry bushes sagging with fruit, eutrophicated ponds that have become shimmering green meadows of equisetum, water lilies with chalices of luminous white petals like small artichokes. It is so peaceful that after a few hours I realize my head has been cleared of all the mental spam that I came here with. I feel a calm that in the days to come will only deepen.
By the end of the afternoon the river is sliding quietly and darkly between 10-foot-high walls of pinkish granite. It has entered the trough that it will stay in for the rest of its course, an east-west fault line in the glacier-scraped, half-a-billion-year-old bedrock known as the Canadian Shield. This Precambrian rock, which underlies 1.6 million square miles of boreal forest, is some of the oldest on the planet. Eons of winter freeze-ups and thaws and torrential spring runoffs have fractured and prized it, shearing off sharp-pointed boulders that stand in the water like miniature mountain peaks. Some of the rock is encrusted with rubbery brown rock tripe, which Pancoe says is edible in a pinch—after you’ve eaten your shoelaces. He steers us into a side channel that the canoe can barely squeeze through, to an alcove where barn swallows have plastered a nest on a little ledge. The rock below it is covered with a bright orange lichen that he calls poop lichen. It grows only where swallow droppings streak down the rock, because it needs the enzymes in them—a very specialized lichen.
Ancient, twisting jack pines are growing in the narrowest cracks and leaning out over the river; 50 feet back from the banks are thickets of close-packed jack pine, but ramrod-straight. It is hard to believe that all these trees, so variable in their physiognomy, are the same species. The boreal has been described as the Amazon of the north. Both forests are vast and teeming with life, but the boreal teems for only half the year, and there are far fewer species. They have been edited by cold. Where there are five models of kingfisher in the Amazon, here there is only one, and only during the summertime. Where there may be 200 species of trees per acre in that mind-boggling rain forest, some of them perhaps not even identified yet, here there are half a dozen or fewer. Only plants and animals that can handle a 110-degree temperature swing live here, and this scarcity of life forms makes each of them stand out. Everything in this pageant of flux that we are paddling through, each bizarre cleavage of the granite, each tortuous branch pattern of a pine, has a luminous singularity, a distilled, heightened purity. It is a Zen landscape, sculpted by chance and the laws of cause and effect, by processes that have been going on for millions of years in which we are nothing. There is little conversation among the 13 of us. We are in awe.
We pull the canoes ashore and pitch our tents on a granite dome that is covered with blueberry bushes. Ollie and the three other hard-core fishermen go off to catch supper—seven chunky, succulent walleyes. They also catch a 20-inch dusky brown black catfish and a moonfish: discoid, with enormous milky eyes. The river is choked with fish. It has the sort of pullulating abundance that was once everywhere and is now found in only a few places on earth.
I wander down into the elfin forest on the back side of the dome. Half the trees are dead, and there is a flourishing community of detritivores: pallid, saprophytic Indian pipes and many kinds of mushroom. I nibble a bright crimson russula, and it is very peppery. Not one of the good russulas. There are several kinds of lactarius, and a yellow boletus that is partial to the caribou lichen, but its porous undersurface bruises blue when I press my thumb into it.Not a good one either. But I find three species of boletus that are, including the delectable Boletus edulis, and two kinds of chanterelle. This will be my gastronomical contribution to the expedition: to provide mushrooms to be sautéed with the walleye, which Louis Young deftly fillets. We wash it down with Labrador tea that Young has picked and brewed. Dessert is blueberries, and as we sit around the crackling fire, agreeing that this was one of the best meals any of us has ever eaten, the clear, liquid fluting of a hermit thrush, close at hand but hidden in the trees, pierces the gathering dusk. It is a song of the most exquisite purity, its sustained tonic embroidered with brilliantly improvised rising and falling arpeggios.
Don Sullivan and Gaile Whelan-Enns lead the efforts against new dams.
None of us has to be persuaded that this is a version of Eden, one of the last great wildernesses to have barely known the hand of man, and unquestionably worthy of World Heritage designation. But what about the average Joe, who will never get to go on a trip like this? Why should he care about a wilderness in northern Canada? What does it matter to him if the boreal forest exists or not?
To begin with, it is a vital habitat for birds, and thus for the overall biodiversity of the Western Hemisphere. Three to five billion birds, including a hundred million shorebirds, millions of ducks, half a billion warblers, a billion sparrows, and one-third of all North American land birds summer and raise their young in the Canadian boreal. Precious, too, are the trees. The boreal forest, especially its bogs, soaks up vast amounts of carbon dioxide and therefore acts as one of the world’s most important defences against global warming. If you cut the trees down, as loggers are doing elsewhere in the boreal and are threatening to do here, the effects are swift and calamitous. The whole ecosystem collapses. The mossy floor shrivels up, the rains wash the soil into the rivers, and there is less rain because there is less moisture in the air, so the entire moisture regime changes. The rivers become lower and opaque with sediment, which means the fish can’t see their prey, and the gravel beds where they lay their eggs are silted over. In northern Alberta, 62 million acres of boreal forest have been clearcut since 1975 by multinationals, much of it to produce toilet paper, so Manitoba’s huge, pristine tract is especially significant and worth fighting for. The removal of the boreal forest could have far-reaching effects on continental, perhaps even global, weather patterns, exacerbating the droughts already afflicting the American West and the Midwest, for instance.
But to really understand what is at stake, and the possible consequences of losing this magical forest realm, you have to comprehend the power and reach of Manitoba Hydro. Canada is the world’s largest producer of hydropower—15 percent of the total. There are already 279 large dams in the boreal; 85 percent of its river basins have been altered by hydro development. Most of the dams are in First Nations’ territories and were built without the native people’s consent or even consultation. Now Hydro wants new dams and new transmission lines—an assault not seen in Manitoba for the last 30 years. But this time, the opposition is also strong: a coalition of First Nation activists and several environmental groups in Canada, led by Don Sullivan’s Boreal Forest Network and another scrappy little Winnipeg-based organization, Manitoba Wildlands, whose executive director, Gaile Whelan-Enns, also received the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal. They’re getting significant support from two groups in the United States— the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Minnesota- based organization JustEnergy. “We in the U.S. are the main consumers of Canada’s energy, its paper and wood products,” says Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, a senior attorney at NRDC who is leading the group’s Manitoba campaign.“ The U.S. market is driving this need to exploit the boreal. There’s a clear link.”
THE MANY-HEADED HYDRO
In the 1960s and 1970s Manitoba Hydro undertook massive hydroelectric projects in the Nelson River system, 150 miles north of the Bloodvein. The Nelson drains Lake Winnipeg, running from its northeastern corner up to the vast Hudson Bay, and is the biggest river in the province. Seventy-five percent of the flow of the Churchill, the next big river to the north of the Nelson, is diverted into the Nelson via the Rat and Burntwood Rivers, and five dams with a total output of 3,925 megawatts were put in along the Nelson itself, producing more than enough juice to power a metropolis the size of Minneapolis–St. Paul. Two channels were dredged at the beginning of the Nelson to speed up and strengthen the outflow from Lake Winnipeg, and a control structure called Jenpeg was installed 40 miles downriver to regulate the releases of water from the lake into the rest of the Nelson.
These alterations unleashed a cascade of consequences, most of them unforeseen. The flow and level of the Nelson were now artificially controlled at Jenpeg, and their natural, seasonal fluctuation patterns were reversed. There were, and still are, sudden releases in the middle of the winter, when the demand for electric heat in Winnipeg (where 60 percent of the province’s population lives) is at its peak.“ You get different layers of ice forming, and you can’t go out to your trap lines in a Ski-Doo because you’ll fall through,” explains Jackson Osborne, a 53-year-old member of the Pimicikamak of Cross Lake, a nation of 3,000 Cree living on the Nelson, only five miles below Jenpeg. “Animals get caught between the layers. In the spring when the ice breaks the stench is unbearable.” He shows me a picture of himself standing between layers of ice, one at his knees, another over his head, and a third layer that he is standing on. Osborne produces another picture, of seagull eggs lying in a foot of water, taken right after a torrent was suddenly released from Jenpeg. He doesn’t know how many other nests have been drowned, but a study at South Indian Lake, the Cree community most affected by the first round of dams, concluded that most of the aquatic birds there were wiped out. In the same vicinity, a herd of woodland caribou, swimming across the Rat River at its historic crossing, was swept to its death because the Rat’s flow had been strengthened about tenfold after Manitoba Hydro diverted the Churchill into it. The accelerated flows and more frequent fluctuations have eaten away at the banks of the Nelson and the shores of South Indian Lake, toppling trees into the water and creating floating islands of mud. One evening during our June visit Osborne shows us a documentary he’s made about an old burial site that was washed away by the rising water. “I filmed the skulls and bones of my ancestors in the water,” he says. “When I saw our human remains desecrated like that, I got really mad. Many of our cultural and burial sites have been destroyed since the dams were put into service.”
All the trees and other eroded vegetation build up and rot behind the dams, and the tannic acid they release lowers the pH of the water and leaches out the naturally occurring mercury in the bedrock. Bacteria turn the mercury into methyl mercury, explains Daniel Green, an environmental toxicologist with the University of Quebec in Montreal, who consults for Sierra Club Canada. “Methyl mercury accumulates and bioconcentrates at higher levels in the tissue and muscle of fish, delivering a lot of mercury to whoever eats them—minks, loons, or humans,” Green says. The mercury levels of the fish that are caught at Cross Lake are so high that breast-feeding mothers are warned not to eat them. “If a company had a pipe that discharged as much mercury as these dams do, it would be prosecuted for toxic pollution,” Green goes on. “So there’s a double standard. We’re getting the mercury out of car emissions, hospitals, and thermometers, but these mega hydroelectric projects are one of the most efficient ways to contaminate the boreal ecosystem, and once the mercury is in the food chain, it takes a very long time to get rid of it. Birds carry it south, so there is also the problem of biological transport of contaminants.”
Manitoba Hydro’s Jenpeg generating station, left, regulates the flow of water from Lake Winnipeg into the Nelson River system; above, the resulting fluctuations in water level seriously erode shorelines along its waterways.
“The beauty, we cannot get it back,” 82-year-old Charlie Osborne, Jackson’s father, tells me in June as we are getting a tour of the devastation. Charlie speaks in Cree, which someone has to translate for me; he has forgotten the English he learned 40 years ago, when he worked for the crew that was scoping out the site for the Kelsey Dam, the first that went in on the Nelson. “We had no idea what the dams were going to do until much later. The engineer from Hydro promised that the water level would not go up any more than the length of his pencil. Our land was very beautiful and healthy. Our water was clear. If you dropped an object into Cross Lake, you could see it on the bottom. Now you can’t see nothing. The fish is not the same quality. It tastes different. Even today, if I don’t eat fish, I don’t feel well. When you eat it, your body rejuvenates. There’s a lot of medicine in that fish. But now you boil the meat and it kind of dissolves, like sugar in water, and tastes mucky, like silt.”
“You have to be here year round, season to season, to get the full picture,” the younger Osborne says. “In the fall,when the river is lowest, the pollution gets concentrated and the kids who swim in it get scabs and rashes.”
The dams, because of the mercury and the fluctuations, destroyed the flourishing whitefish industry of five native communities, including South Indian Lake and the Pimicikamak Cree of Cross Lake. “In the 70s personal income in those native fishing communities was on a par with the rest of Manitoba; today it is about one-third,” says Don Sullivan. “The social infrastructure for these people to have a traditional economy—the entire culture, which depends on a healthy ecosystem for everything—was wiped out.” As the dams destroyed the river systems, Coke and junk food, welfare checks and big TVs, took the place of fishing and hunting and trapping, and people sat at home and became obese and developed diabetes and got in trouble—depression, drugs, spousal and child abuse. There was an epidemic of suicide at Cross Lake in the 1980s.
Hydropower at work: Sudden elevations in water levels at places like Cross Lake, above, can submerge nests and destroy the eggs of sandpipers, plovers, and other waterbirds that nest along the Nelson River system.
These acts of despair cannot be attributed directly to the dams, as much as to the process of cultural evisceration that has been going on much longer. First came the Hudson Bay fur traders, then the Anglican and Roman Catholic missionaries in the nineteenth century, competing for the natives’ heathen souls. They forbade the people to conduct their ceremonies and even to use their medicinal plants, while trying to convince them that everything about their culture was bad. Then in the twentieth century, from 1920 to 1960, several generations of children were taken from their communities and forced to attend residential schools, where they were beaten if they spoke their own language. The dams were the coup de grâce, the final flail.
“The way we have treated our First Nations is our dirty little secret,” Sullivan says. “These people should be the richest in Canada—they have all the resources—but they’re the poorest, because they’re not getting any of it. It’s all going to you guys.”
Roughly 85 percent of everything Canada exports flows to the United States. Denver-based Xcel Energy, the fourth largest energy company in the United States, buys about 40 percent of the electricity exported by Manitoba Hydro. This represents only 4 percent of Xcel’s total energy grid. But it is one reason why Manitoba Hydro is such an important cash cow for the province. In 2002 the provincial government took an additional $162.5 million from Hydro to cover its spending for 2002–2003. (Manitoba’s government is entitled to requisition funds from its utility as needed.) Hydro and the other “crown corporations,” or public utilities, are schizophrenic enterprises, ruthlessly capitalistic and profit driven, yet ultimately socialistic in intent: The profits help fund services like free health care and education, and the electricity itself is very cheap. “As the government becomes more dependent on Manitoba Hydro to make up its shortfalls, there is a strong incentive to build more dams,” says Sullivan. “It’s hard to wean a baby off a bottle once it has had it for so long.”
Hydro’s plans bear this out as the company prepares for a new round of dam building.Hydro hopes to start with a $720 million, 200-megawatt dam on the Burntwood River called Wuskwatim. (These new dams, ironically, have Cree names, a sort of consolation prize to the Cree for having their homelands compromised.) But Wuskwatim is only the beginning. Hydro wants to build another dam to go into service by 2013, the 640-megawatt Keeyask, and another one by 2017, the 1,250-megawatt Conawapa. Both would be located on the Nelson, with Conawapa way up near the river’s mouth at Hudson Bay. All told, Hydro has identified 12 new sites for dams and generating stations.
I want to understand the rationale for all these new dams, so I sit down with Manitoba Hydro’s CEO, Bob Brennan, in his office in the corporation’s glass headquarters in Winnipeg. A man who strikes me as supremely comfortable in his own skin, he has been at Hydro for 40 years. Brennan assures me that “Wuskwatim is going to flood only 0.2 square mile—smaller than a golf course—and it’s purely for domestic consumption. The juice will flow to northern population centers like Le Pas and Flin Flon, down as far as Dauphin. Electricity is like water flowing through a tube: It goes wherever there is an opening.”
In a second conversation in February Brennan tells me that Wuskwatim’s energy, and that of the two other proposed dams, is going to be exported until 2020, feeding a revenue source that has become crucial for both Hydro and the province. But so far, no one has signed up for the new offering. Xcel renewed its contract with Hydro in 2002, but for no more than what it is already buying. Other utilities serving Minnesota, which lies just south of Manitoba, are feeling pressure from state officials, and from the grassroots outfit JustEnergy, to ensure that sources of electricty would do no further damage to Canada’s boreal wilderness or violate the rights of the native people who live in it. “We don’t know who the energy will be sold to— Saskatchewan, Ontario, or the States—but there will be a market for sure,” Brennan says with genial optimism.
This sounds to me like speculative capitalism, supply in search of demand—not a good enough reason to destroy more of the boreal or to do further damage to its rivers. Ken Adams, Hydro’s vice president in charge of power supply, seems to agree. He tells me, flatout, “There’s really no need for these new dams, in the sense that the energy for Manitoba isn’t going to run out.” Hydro’s plan is to maintain its levels of revenue from exports (even though there is no on to sell the energy to at this point) and to build dams because it is still profitable to build them.
What is most dubious about Hydro’s agenda is that there are more sensible choices. Even Adams is able to tick off alternative ways that Hydro can produce more energy without putting in these new dams. It has already created a 292-megawatt “virtual dam” by helping its big industrial customers do simple things like replace their commercial T-12 lighting with energy-saving fluorescent T-8 bulbs, and it has initiated a conservation project that will provide 640 more megawatts within 13 years. Hydro has signed a contract to buy 99 megawatts from a private wind-energy company and is expecting to buy at least another 150. At the moment, 10 percent of Hydro’s electricity is lost in the transmission lines—a solvable problem. But Brennan claims that building the dams now rather than later fixes the price of energy for the lifetime of those plants. “It’s like building a house and selling it in 10 years. You can’t help but make a profit.”
“To a certain extent you are fixing the price of energy 10 years from now by building now, because with inflation the construction costs are bound to be higher,” explains Philip Raphals, an expert on the economics of dams and director of the Helios Centre, a research group in Montreal. “But if by the time you’ve laid out your construction costs your cost to generate energy is six cents per kilowatt-hour and the Midwest is paying only four cents, you’re in trouble.”
Political leaders in Manitoba and neighbouring Ontario support the new spate of dam building, though they have their own reasons. Last September the premiers of both provinces unveiled Manitoba Hydro’s $1.6 million feasibility study for Conawapa to a gathering of industrialists and potential investors at the Empire Club in Ottawa. Manitoba’s premier, John Doer, argued that Conawapa would provide the single largest reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the country. Canada, unlike the United States, is a party to the Kyoto Protocol and is taking seriously its commitment to return its emissions to l990 levels by 2010. If energy from Manitoba Hydro were to replace coal-fired plants In Ontario—and that is a big if—it would reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 7 megatonnes per year. But toxicologist Green points out that if you flood forests and bogs to create reservoirs for dams, you lose significant carbon sinks; and flooded bogs release methane, whose global-warming impact may be 20 times more potent than that of carbon dioxide.“ It is true that hydropower’s carbon emissions are much less than coal power plants,” says Casey-Lefkowitz at NRDC. “However, hydropower’s impact on the environment and people has to be measured in more than carbon emissions; it must also be measured in terms of its impact on the land and the people living there. We don’t need to choose between the land and climate change—that’s as false a dichotomy as the old division between economic development and the environment.”
A great gray owl (Strix nebulosa) lurks in a black spruce in northern Manitoba.
THE FIRST NATIONS
After nine weeks of heated public hearings, Manitoba’s Clean Environment Commission last fall recommended the licensing of Wuskwatim. “This is the first domino; if it goes, the next all go with it,” says Don Sullivan.“Wuskwatim would be the only dam so far subject to environmental review. The prior ones never went through any provincial, federal, or public review process and have no environmental licenses. If they get an easy ride with this one, they’ll keep on going.”
But Hydro could face other opposition: Five Cree nations, including South Indian Lake and the Pimicikamak Cree of Cross Lake, which were slammed by the previous dams, have the right of advise and consent on any large hydro project that would have an impact on their territory.“ You can drive a Mack truck through our environmental laws,” Sullivan asserts. “They’re full of weaselling out language. But since the Canadian Constitution of 1982, aboriginal rights are inviolate.”
Hydro knows this, of course, and has been assiduously courting these ravaged communities to get them on board. In 1975, prior to the new constitution, the utility, along with the federal and provincial governments, was pressured to sign a compensation package called the Northern Flood Agreement with the Cree nations. But by 1992 most of this treaty’s terms had not been fulfilled. Four of the nations—including the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (NCN) and Tataskweyak Cree Nation—agreed to a cash settlement, which is referred to in official documents as an implementation agreement. Others refer to it as an “extinguishment agreement,” because it potentially frees the company of everything it was obligated to do by the 1975 pact, thus weakening the nations’ leverage to resist Hydro’s new projects. But one nation, the Pimicikamak, did no sign an implementation agreement and therefore remains in a stronger position to oppose the construction of Wuskwatim.
The Pimicikamak are not alone in their opposition to Wuskwatim. The dam would lie in the territory of NCN, whose 5,000 members are bitterly divided over a statement of understanding the leadership signed with Hydro. Elvis Thomas, a pro-development and pro-dam member of the band council (as some First Nations call their deliberative body), explains the terms he negotiated for his community: To gain one-third ownership of the dam, according to Thomas, NCN would invest $59.3 million in Hydro; $39.8 million of that would come in the form of a 25-year loan from the company. NCN would have to raise the other $19.5 million. Once the dam is built, the First Nation could expect to earn $21 million to $46 million per year in energy revenues.
“Hydro in the 60s and 70s made the decision to tap into the existing river system with no discussion or involvement of the native people,” Thomas says. “The federal and provincial governments gave their blessings and proceeded as if we didn’t exist, and caused a lot of damage to the Nelson River system, which we live in. People have been scarred and impacted in ways you wouldn’t believe. As the leaders of today, we have to contend with that. But that was done, and these dams have been in existence for 34 years. I can’t live in the past and complain about it forever and a day, because I have real live human beings that I represent who are pressing on me their needs in today’s life— health care and other services that modern society takes for granted.”
In order for Hydro to proceed, the Wuskwatim deal has to be approved by a referendum of the whole community. Its critics claim that the leadership has delayed the vote until this summer because it is afraid Wuskwatim won’t get enough votes. One critic is Carol Kobliski, spokeswoman of the opposition group Nelson House Justice Seekers—and Thomas’s sister.The dam hasn’t even been built, but already it is dividing families.
“Elvis is on the other side of the fence,” Kobliski says. “It’s very hard, but I have the support of the community, and we’re getting help from all over. We don’t want Wuskwatim because it’s going to destroy our land and water even more. Money isn’t going to give back what’s gone or make our people happy.”
Susan Casey-Lefkowitz at NRDC emphasizes that since 1982, when the new constitution was ratified, aboriginal rights, as affirmed by Canada’s Supreme Court, have been the best means to achieve conservation goals and to foil Hydro’s plans, so she and the Canadian groups are supporting these First Nations’ rights. Still, it’s too early to predict the outcome. “Manitoba Hydro is a state unto itself,” Sullivan tells me. “It’s even more powerful than the provincial government, and it’s always gotten a get-out-of-jail card for its transgressions. I wouldn’t count it out just yet.”
Among the collateral effects of the dams are the three or more transmission lines—perhaps running in two separate corridors— that Hydro wants to run straight through the proposed World Heritage site. Each corridor would cut a swath 150 yards wide, for hundreds of miles through undisturbed wilderness. The lines would cut across caribou migration routes and curtail their seasonal, food-driven movements (caribou rarely venture out of the woods so they don’t become easier prey for wolves and other predators). The swaths could then open the way to roads, which eventually open the door to large-scale exploitation of minerals and timber. “That’s what always happens,” Sullivan says dolefully. The visual impact alone would be horrific— a procession of monstrous metal bipoles marching across the landscape, over hill and dale, shattering the wilderness. But Premier Doer of Manitoba seems to be coming around. In December he said that a World Heritage site would be great for the province, although he stopped short of saying that the transmission lines should be kept out.Was he speaking with a politician’s forked tongue, or does he think he can have it both ways? Stay tuned.
BLOODVEIN: BACK TO THE BEGINNING
Floating down the Bloodvein is like time travel—returning to the primordial boreal, the forest primeval, where there are no dams or transmission lines. But it also offers a glimpse (if reason prevails) of a different future—one of undisturbed splendour.
All the ominous projects and prospects seem very abstract and far away as we make our way down the hauntingly beautiful river. There are 43 rapids, and we run all of them except four that we portage and six that we line, leaving the canoes in the river and pulling them along the rapids with ropes. All of us capsize at least once and are baptized by the Bloodvein, and in this way we are gently reminded that we’re all here on nature’s sufferance. I begin to imagine that the river has a spirit—a capricious one who, while we are having our coffee, is having hers and figuring out the fun she will have with these foolish mortals today. Our canoe swamps in one choppy stretch, not because we’ve done anything wrong but because there is too much weight in the bow: moi. As I sit on the bank like a wet rat, Louis Young joins me and asks, out of the blue, “Whatever happened to Ollie North?” The question hits me like a funny koan, a Zen riddle. When I recover from laughing, I say, “You know, Louis, that’s the best question anybody’s asked me in years.”
The weather is extremely variable. One day the sky is clear blue, the next day there is driving rain. I have never seen such lavender-pink sunsets as are mirrored on the glassy surface of the river. One night we see the aurora borealis. Auroras are caused by charged solar particles hitting the upper atmosphere and glowing as they are deflected by the earth’s geomagnetic field. No two are the same. This one is like a huge green curtain tinged with reddish purple; it starts in the north and moves across the sky like a spotlight, disappears, and returns after 10 seconds or so.
Charlie Osborne, a member of the Pimicikamak Cree, says even the fish in Cross Lake don’t taste the same.
We see lots of beavers and their lodges, and the sharp spikes of aspens and jack pines that they have gnawed off. Once, in a scalloped bay, three otter stand up on their hind legs and chatter adorably, like a vaudeville conga line. But it is probably a threat display.
Up in the front of the canoe, my field of vision unobstructed by anything human for eight days, I get into a rhythm of maybe a stroke a second, not using the muscles in my arms but letting the rotation of my torso move my paddle through the water. It is meditative, almost trancelike. “This is what the body is made for,” David Pancoe, our outfitter, says when I ask him why he has chosen this arduous, ill-paid line of work. Between getting us down the river and doing the cooking, he’s been putting in 12-hour days.
On my knees, I focus on how the paddle makes a little swirling whirlpool as it bites into the water, and how it casts off two more little whirlpools when I take it out at the end of the stroke, with a slight twist of my wrist that turns the blade vertical and makes it easier to take out of the water. For long stretches the only sounds are the drops of water falling from the paddle as I bring it forward and bite the water again, and the little straining sound, like a tiny, trickling rivulet, that the bow makes as it parts the water. “Soft is the song my paddle sings,” Canada’s beloved, half-Mohawk poet E. Pauline Johnson wrote. Canoeing is one of the gentlest, least disturbing, and most unobtrusive ways of moving through physical space, and these rivers are the corridors that the native people have used for many centuries, their blue highway, their county road.
I can see in my companions’ faces that they, too, are in a rapturous state. We are going to be together for only a short time, and most of us probably are never going to meet again, but we are experiencing something that will be with us always—an order of wildness and purity, a system so vast and ancient that the distinction between individual existence and nothingness is almost meaningless. By the time we get to the Bloodvein community, where several of Young’s female relatives have prepared a fabulous feast of goose and moose, wild rice and blueberry pie and where Louis will heat some boulders red hot and conduct a sweat lodge ceremony for us, a powerful, unspoken bond has grown among our group.
Many have been drawn to the mysticism of canoeing, including Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s charismatic prime minister in the 1970s. Trudeau had fantastic technique and liked nothing better than to take off alone in his cedar-strip canoe and his fringed buckskin jacket. “Paddling a canoe is a source of enrichment and inner renewal,” he wrote. “It carries a man to the truest part of himself.” It was Trudeau who urged young Canadians to participate in the Wild River Survey from 1971 to 1974, which led to the creation of a conservation program called the Heritage River system and to the Bloodvein’s eventual inclusion in it, along with 38 other rivers of special magic and merit.
Rivers like this are our lifeblood, not only ecologically and economically, but also spiritually. We need them—as is. This is a time not only of massive extinction of the myriad forms of life on this planet, but of extinction of experience, particularly of the natural world, for those of us who are living in modern society. Perhaps this is why the river trip has been so powerful for all of us—we were nature-deprived, and all these dormant responses were reawakened. It may not be my place, as an American, to tell Canada that the age of dam-building is over, or that it is being criminally short sighted to sacrifice its boreal wilderness and its magnificent gushing rivers so that the United States can have a backup source of power that it may not even end up wanting. On the other hand, my family and I live in Montreal these days, and, in any case, aren’t we all citizens of the world? What happens to the boreal affects us all, wherever we happen to call home.
WHERE THE ACTION IS
These organizations can provide more information on the campaign for Manitoba’s proposed World Heritage site:
- Natural Resources Defense Council: www.nrdc.org
- Manitoba Wildlands: manitobawildlands.org
- Boreal Forest Network: www.borealnet.org
Don Sullivan e-mailed me with the great news, as per the article below, that the provincial government has nixed Manitoba Hydro’s plan to run Bipole III down the east side of Lake Winnipeg, because it would compromise the proposed World Heritage Site. He thinks that this Dispatch/onearth piece may have played role in turning the government around. He also points out several errors: the premier of Manitoba is Gary Doer, not John Doer, and that he (Don) is 47, not 49. “Let’s not make me any older than I already am, if you don’t mind.” Another important point is that the boreal in the last ten years boreal forests have switched from being a carbon sink to a contributor of atmosphere carbon due to climate-meditate increases in water stress, pest outbreaks, and wildfires (see the Pew Center on Global Climate Change’s November, 2004 publication, “Observed Impacts of Global Climate Change in the U.S.,” by Camille Parmesan and Hector Galbraith).
Hydro won’t get cheapest route
Province rejects line down east lakeshore
Sunday, May 29th, 2005
Winnipeg Free Press
By Dan Lett
THE province has ruled out construction of a power line down the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg, dashing a plan Manitoba Hydro has touted for nearly two decades. Energy Minister Dave Chomiak says his government will not allow construction of Bipole 3 — a third major transmission line to bring power from Manitoba Hydro’s northern generating stations to the south — through the pristine wilderness east of the lake.
“I think that in life, as in politics, you never say never,” Chomiak said in an interview. “But the reality is that when we weighed all the options, we couldn’t support going down the east side. It’s not going to happen.”
Hydro has long argued it needs to build a new transmission line, preferably along the eastern edge of the lake, to shore up its aging main lines that run through the Interlake region.
The east side route is Hydro’s choice because it would be hundreds of kilometres shorter and hundreds of millions of dollars cheaper than routes around the west side of Lake Winnipegosis. It is also more secure for Hydro than running it along the path of existing lines in the Interlake.
However, Chomiak said an east-side route for Hydro’s new line would bisect a tract of virgin wilderness that is being considered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for designation as a World Heritage site.
Environmentalists applauded Chomiak’s statement as the biggest step the NDP government has ever taken to protect the wilderness east of the lake.
“This is a very big deal,” said Don Sullivan, executive director of the Boreal Forest Network, a major supporter of the UNESCO World Heritage designation. “(Chomiak) made a definitive statement and we commend him for taking this bold step and taking the flak for this. It’s not every day that the government goes up against the interests of Manitoba Hydro.”
Sullivan said less definitive messages from the province have allowed Hydro to continue quietly encouraging support for Bipole 3 among aboriginal communities east of the lake.
In fact, a campaign by the Island Lake Tribal Council to form a native consortium in support of an east-side route, led by former MP Elijah Harper, is receiving limited support from Hydro.
Harper said he is aware the NDP government has rejected an east-side line but has been told by Manitoba Hydro a final decision has not yet been made.
The potential spinoffs from a transmission line, including greater all-weather road access, make this the most important economic-development project for the region, he added.
“We are the poorest region in the country,” Harper said. “We can’t continue to look at government handouts. We have to look at developing the resources in our own backyards.”
Manitoba Hydro president Bob Brennan said he is aware that an east-side route is not supported by the current government. Brennan said the utility is currently committed to studying other transmission routes that would avoid the east side of Lake Winnipeg.
However, Brennan said the east-side route will likely have to be examined again in the future. ”
At this point we couldn’t entertain anything involving the east side,” Brennan said. “That doesn’t mean we’re ruling out the east side. But we’re looking at other options at this time.”
Development of the lands east of Lake Winnipeg has been a political lightning rod for decades.
Despite a strong message from the province, government sources confirmed Manitoba Hydro has never lost its appetite for a transmission route east of the lake. The sources said Hydro is preparing updated feasibility studies on the Interlake and western Manitoba routes that will show how much more expensive these options are. The end game, the sources said, would be to embarrass the province into re-thinking its policy.
Chomiak said he is fully prepared for some backlash from Hydro, political opponents and the business community for using environmental concerns to trump economics.
“It would be cheaper to go down the east side,” Chomiak said. “But you don’t make these decisions on the straight economics …We’re going to stand on our environmental concerns.”
Secondly, here is an interview with Peter Kulchyski, head of the Department of Natives Studies at the University of Manitoba, which gives a good dispassionate overview of the rights of native people in the province with respect to their land, water, and resources :
“There have been aboriginal rights since 1763, before the formation of Canada. The British royal proclamation of l867 said it was the federal government’s responsibility to protect Indians and their land. Between l870 and l921 numbered treaties, each covering a particular geographical territory, were made. All the first nations in the new dams and World Heritage dispute are in Treaty 5. After l877, when the Indians were subdued and posed no military threat, the government increasingly and systematically ignored the treaty rights. The minister of the interior in l910 or 12, I think it was Siston, said, “we will never let an Indian right become a white man’s wrong.” Treaty 5 “ceded, released, and surrendered to the crown all rights, titles, and interests” to the Indians’ land.” But it says nothing about the water, as later treaties do, so it could be argued that they still have aboriginal water rights to the Nelson River system, and thus grounds to sue Hydro for violating them. And the treaty also says that the aboriginals can “pursue their avocations of hunting and fishing on the surrendered lands,” so in effect they have rights to them. But it also says that the government can take any part of the lands and use them for any purpose.
“During the first round of dams, Manitoba Hydro, like Hydro Quebec, just went ahead and built them, and as the communities realized their impacts, they formed the Northern Flood Committee in the early 70s to fight what was happening. There were six communities, including South Indian Lake, which is a sub-community of Nelson House. It got it the worst and was completely flooded out [now it is in its third relocation. The Displaced Residents of South Indian Lake are stridently opposed to Wuskwatim]. This fight never got the international attention that the one over the first set of dams in Quebec or the pipeline in the Northwest Territories did, but with help from people all over, they forced Hydro, the province, and the feds to sign the Northern Flood Agreement with a hefty compensation package for each community. The feds were in support of Hydro and the province. They were shirking their responsibilities to the aboriginals; officially they said they were taking a position of “alert neutrality,” as they did in Quebec.
“Over the next 15 years, after the signing of the NFA in l975, the aboriginal communities thought the promises they had been made were much broader, that there was going to be money to solve all their problems, even ‘the eradication of poverty.’ Hydro read the NFA very narrowly and dragged its feet on implementing it. By the late 90s the frustrated communities were picked off by Hydro by “implementation agreements,” which were actually cash buyouts; I call them “extinguishment agreements,” because the communities that took them had all their rights under the N.F.A. extinguished. One of the clauses said the communities will not take hydro, province, or the feds to court over anything having to do with the NFA.
“In l982 the aboriginal treaty rights were recognized and affirmed by the new Canadian constitution. This means you need a constitutional amendment to change any particular right. One clause says that the Charter of Freedom’s can’t be interpreted in a way that limits aboriginal rights, and section 35 says that existing treaty rights are recognized and affirmed. The supreme court is now saying that there should be a liberal interpretation, “a liberal and generous view,” of the spirit of the treaties, because the aboriginals did not understand their legal nuances. The ‘honor of the crown’ is at stake in interpreting these treaties compassionately. The courts are looking at the oral history of the treaties, what the aboriginals were orally promised. If a chief told his son we were told we could maintain our lifeways forever, and the son told this to his son, this has documentary weight in court. It is the courts in their liberal interpretation that have developed the doctrine of meaningful and bone fide consultation.
“Cross Lake did not sign an implementation agreement, so it has the right to protest Wuskwatim. As one of the six communities, it has the right to be consulted in any project in their collective area. In Treaty 5 they didn’t surrender their water rights, so they do have a veto on Wuskwatim or any of the dams in their territory. But nobody is pursuing this argument. I plan to bring it into play.
“Pauingassi and Little Grand Rapids are not in a position to fight the dams because they are not in their territory. But they can fight the power lines. They, too, are in Treaty 5. If they have the right to pursue hunting and fishing, and they can make the case that the lines will destroy enough habitat, they could stop them. Practically, they are trying to create the World Heritage Site so it will be very difficult for Hydro to drive lines through their traditional territories. They have a much better chance of stopping the lines on the east side than the opponents of Wuskwatim do. But Nelson House has to have a referendum, and the leadership has agreed that if they vote against the dam, they will not partner with Hydro in the project. It’s hard to call the [outcome of the] referendum, but the fact that the leadership isn’t holding it suggests that they know they don’t have the necessary votes. Hydro is doing the hard sell in Nelson House, offering jobs right and left. The Premier even went up there.
“There’s a better chance to stop the lines on the east side because Hydro is more committed to and has invested a lot of resources in Wuskwatim and is more prepared to bite the bullet on the lines and send them down the west side. Poplar River has been very smart to get its protection status 10 years ahead of time, and it’s going to be hard for Hydro to fight them. Interim park status gives you more protection, and being enshrined in World Heritage status builds up the notion that this is sheer wilderness. The Manitoba government belatedly and begrudgingly last November supported the site, and that becomes something for hydro to work around [as Bob Brennon says himself in the same words]. They can drive the line from Conawapa to northwestern Ontario, which will avoid the site, and run the others down the west side if they have to. As long as they can go along with their projects they’re happy and willing to put up with some constraints.”
One very important point, which did not get its due in the Dispatch/onearth piece solely because of space constraints, is the seminal role that Poplar River First Nation played in putting together the World Heritage proposal. It began with Poplar River getting interim park protection for its own traditional territory, in response to an invitation to the province’s first nations from the Manitoba Parks department to propose wilderness areas for protection. Here is the section on Poplar River that didn’t make the final cut :
The route and impact of the transmission line from Conawapa was the next issue on our delegation’s itinerary.
[This was in June, 2004, the first of three trips I would make to the boreal that summer] Leaving Cross Lake, we flew two hundred miles down to Weaver Lake, fifty miles up the Poplar River, in the heart of the proposed World Heritage site.
If Ontario ends up buying the dam’s 1200 megawatts, Bipole 3, as the succession of behemoth steel towers strung with fourteen sets of interbraided high-voltage wires is called, would run southeast for 1200 kilometers, to the nearest point where Ontario’s grid can be upgraded to take the juice, and it would not pose a problem for the Ontario site. But if it ran for 1000 kilometers due south to the existing line between Ontario and Manitoba (this was the “critical east-west juncture” Doer was referring to), it would run right through the proposed site and have a whole concatenation of ghastly impacts. Hunters would pour in in four-wheelers and skidoos, hewers of wood, miners of ore, and developers would run off side roads, and the wolves would have an advantage over the woodland caribou, whose numbers are already parlous. It would be the beginning of the end for that magnificent wilderness. But Bob Brennan and the two premiers clearly felt this was the sensible way to go, not only because it was considerably cheaper, but because it would integrate with the mid-western grid more effectively at this point. “As far as the World Heritage site is concerned,” Brennan told me, “we can work around that when we get there.”
The story of how this particularly tract of the boreal shield’s impenetrable vastness became a candidate for World Heritage designation begins in l995, when the provincial Parks Department invited the twenty-six first nations in the province to propose new areas for protection. Poplar River First Nation decided to take it up, and started by proposing its own traditional territory, as defined by the trap-line districts that its extended family groups had historically worked. The proposal was accepted, and in l999 their homeland was declared a provincial “park reserve,” a provisional status that had just been renewed for five years, buying time for Poplar River and its partners, which include the NRDC, to work on securing the World Heritage status for it and the territories of Pauingassi, Little Grand Rapids, and Pikanjikium first nations and the Woodland Caribou and Atitaki provincial parks of Ontario and Manitoba, respectively.
This would save 4.3 million hectares—more than ten million acres—but it is by no means in the bag. There are quite a number of bureaucratic hoops that have to be gone through. At this point the Woodland-Caribou-Atitaki-four nations accord cluster, as it is mellifluously called, is on Parks Canada’s tentative list of sites that may be nominated in the next ten years. The cluster has in its favor that is it the only example of the boreal shield ecozone, and that it would be partly managed by the provinces, and partly by the local native people, which is sexy these days (the conservation movement has come a good way since the days of the old African game parks of the twenties, from which the local people were evicted and their hunters became poachers). Also in its favor is the fact that the IUCN has done a study of the entire boreal and identified it as an area of special concern and high priority from the global conservation standpoint. Once it is nominated—which will require advocacy and political pressure in Ottawa—UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has to decide whether to place it on the World Heritage list. But before it goes to UNESCO, both provinces have to be on board, and it was not clear from talking with Gordon Jones, the head of Manitoba Conservation’s parks department, that Manitoba is yet.
Jones told me that he appreciated where Pauingassi and Little Grand Rapids (Pikangikum is in Ontario) were coming from when they proposed their traditional trapline districts for provincial protection, but “we can’t recommend it in the context of our protected areas initiative, which has a scientific basis for where a park should be established. Ours is a representative protected-area system,” he went on, “with twelve percent of each ‘landscape unit’ designated for protection. With the existence already of two provincial wilderness parks and a park reserve [Poplar River], we can say this boreal forest type is adequately represented, so we don’t have the rational to say that Pauingassi and Little Grand Rapids should be protected as well.”
So you’re not endorsing the candidacy ? I asked. This doesn’t sound like it would be very helpful to the cause.
“I’m not saying that,” Jones said. “The World Heritage business is kind of another layer. I’m just saying that it can’t be justified at the provincial level. But we need to think how the site would be managed. It would be the first World Heritage site in Manitoba. The thirteen existing sites in Canada have highly-protected management regimes because many of them are national parks. So this proposed site will have to go a whole process [employing scores of people, generating thousands of pages of reports, and taking years, I thought] to get a clear understanding of what a site might mean. What are the other land use interests and what do they mean ? There is a possible hydro line—how does that get factored in ? Poplar River may end up a provincial park or something new entirely, like a first nations preservation area.”
Don Sullivan said that Jones’s “heart is in the right place, but he is incapable of making his mind up about anything. The twelve percent solution, as I call it, was part of a biodiversity inventory of all of Canada commissioned from the World Wildlife Fund. The program is defunct, but the provinces still use it. But the WWF recommended a minimum of twelve percent, and the provinces are adhering to it as the maximum. It has some objective criteria, but it basically a bunch of hooey that has less to do with science than politics and chutzpah. It depends on whether you’re for it or not.”
Unlike Cross Lake, Weaver Lake was absolutely pristine. We hopped off the float plane onto a granite slab draped with half a dozen yard-long jack (northern pike in the states) caught that morning. This was the heart of the boreal (as NRDC has called its biogem, which embraces the 4.3 million hectares of the World Heritage Site and an as yet undefined part of the surrounding area), a spectacular wilderness teeming with the abundance of life that was once everywhere.
Here the Poplar River First Nation runs a traditional healing camp, and its director, Ray Rabliauskus, welcomed us along with fifteen others, including a group of giggling women who were frying up some scrumptious pickerel (walleye in the States) under a tarp. The twelve hundred people of this nation are Ojibway, or Anashinabe, as they call themselves, historically mortal enemies of the Cree. Originally from Sault St. Marie, between Lake Superior and Lake Huron, the Ojibway moved west, spurred by the fur trade, across the forested boreal shield to the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg and down into Wisconsin, where they displaced the Lakota and are known as the Chippewa. This was one of their northernmost communities. Until they were sedentarized at the mouth of the Poplar by missionaries at the turn of the nineteenth century, they had been semi-nomadic, spending the summer fishing at the mouth of the Big Black River, the next one up the lake, and hunting and trapping on showshoes around Weaver Lake, in the winter.
A gentle, softspoken man, Ray wasn’t Ojibway, but the son of Lithuanian immigrants to Ontario who had come to the community twenty-five years ago and stayed because it needed a licensed carpenter to qualify for a housing grant and because he fell in love with Sophie. By now he an “albino Indian,” one of the men kidded. He was living the way of humility and reverence and had a sort of Gandhian glow about him. Ray was also spearheading the World Heritage Campaign. Don Sullivan said that Poplar River decided to join the provincial protected-area system “to make them play by their own rules, so there wouldn’t be any nasty surprises like development licenses.” But Ray described the collaboration in a much less confrontational way, “We’re partnering with the Manitoba government, and they’re good people. The Ojibway way is not to fight, but to work with people, to go with the flow instead of against it; we don’t believe in negotiating in anger. But if they do come to log, we’ll die for it. Poplar is a unique place, and the people’s strength and humility and way of operating in the world has kept it that way. Every living thing has a job, and so far humans are the only ones who aren’t doing it right. The sun comes up every day; it does its job. The leaves come out and clear the air, and all the insects do what they’re supposed to do; it’s only us.”
I was dying for some exercise, after three days of one feast after another, so Don and I and a young woman named Juanita Murdoch went for a walk in the woods, but the path stopped at the outhouse, and it was hard slogging, with brambles and brutal, bloodthirsty mosquitoes, and every fifty feet a huge pile of moose droppings, so we only went till we came to a muskeg, a marsh with tall brown sedge and a few small trees in it , and turned back. 300-pounds, with a beautiful, child-like, open face Juanita had been born in Poplar, but at the age of two had gone with her mother to Winnipeg, where she grew up in the mean streets of the North End. I’d driven through the North End, seen the drunks and the sniffers of aerosols in plastic bags passed out in doorways, the fathers selling their daughters. It is the most depressing native ghetto in Canada, like Gallup, New Mexico, or Sidney, Australia, where Navajos and aborigines stumble between cosmologies.
Juanita had got into a gang called Indian Posse, and “I lost my four kids to care,” she told us. She had come back to Poplar to regroup and get back to her roots. “We’re just getting to know Juanita again,” Ray told me. Buoyant, brimming with laughter and irrepressible joie de vivre, she was clearly going to make it.
These were the kind of people who came to the healing camp. Diabetes, drug addictions—all the modern toxins were treated by traditional means, with the help of modern psychotherapy. There was a big teepee where everyone sat in a talking circle, with a fire burning in the middle, and let it all out. Some of the sessions were heavy, like when a woman would vent her pain to her father, who had had incest with her when she was little. As with all the native people in Canada, the people of Poplar were sent away to residential schools, where they were beaten if they talked their own language and sometimes sexually abused. “Two or three generations lost the knowledge of how to nurture and be a parent,” Ray explained, and they were taking out what had been done to them on their kids. The worst time was from the twenties to the fifties. Forbidden to use their medicinal plants and to have their ceremonies, they went deep into the woods to do their drumming and dancing, but the drumming and dancing and the knowledge of the medical plants gradually died out. But they still had their language and this small group was trying to recover the old ways. Don called them “born-again traditionalists.” The largest religious group in Poplar were the hundred-or-so born-again Pentecostals, the Shakers, as they were called, who held revivals almost every night. The Shakers regarded the healing camp as pagan and satanic, which is why the chief hadn’t come; it would have gotten him in political hot water.
We had several talking circles, each of us explaining why we were here and getting comfortable with each other. There was some drumming and dancing, but it was pretty self-conscious and inhibited, because it was not a living tradition, but something they were trying to reconstruct. One of the young drummers kept losing the beat and with a look of desperate mortification trying to get back into it. But still you could hear that this was something very ancient, an exulting in being alive, a declaration of the right to be here, that went back ten thousand years, to the paleo bands that followed the caribou. Something that was at first alien to Western ears, too “primordial” than anything he was prepared for, as D.H.Lawrence described the singing and drumming he heard at Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, in 1921.
“Listening to the pat-pat of the drums, and the hie-hie-hie-away of the singers, an acute sadness and a nostalgia, unbearably yearning for something, and a sickness of the soul came over me. The gobble-gobble chuck in the whoop surprised me in my very tissues. Then I got used to it, and could hear in it the humanness, the playfulness, and then, beyond that, the mockery and the diabolical, pre-human, pine-tree fun of cutting dusky throats.”
The elders, one of whom sang some old mournful country songs, accompanying himself on my little traveling guitar, had helped a botanist from Winnipeg put out a little book of Poplar River’s medicinal plants, but they hadn’t told her everything. These people hadn’t lost the core of their culture, I realized. They were taking back control of their lives, dealing with the modern world on their terms, like the Pimicikimak. They would make perfect stewards of the World Heritage site.
The next morning the delegation flew out, and I stayed on for a couple of days, knowing how faulty impressions from quick zips through unfamiliar terrain can be. We all sat around in the teepee, joking and chilling, until the time came to leave. Without a word, everyone got up and switched into on-the-move mode, swiftly and surely packed the boats, slid them into the water, pull the starting cords of the outboard motors, and headed down the river. Aluminum outboards had arrived only fifteen years ago, but the men had already become experts at shooting rapids in them, which they hadn’t been able to do in their canoes, so we only had to portage four of the twelve rapids in the fifty miles between Weaver Lake and the community of Poplar River and were able to make the trip in four hours. It was a thing of beauty to watch how they read and unerringly threaded the roiling water, the grace and pride with which they all worked together, the women just as hard and effectively, sliding the boats over the log skids at the portages. The Saulteaux, the People of the Rapids, as the French Voyageurs called the Objiway, were in their element. Juanita was in another boat, and had never done anything like this. Tripping over roots and rocks, she was having the time of her life.
The river was as wild as a remote tributary of the Amazon, or the Epulu, which flows through the Ituri Forest in eastern Congo, only there were no crocodiles or colobus monkeys hurtling through the trees. Up here, edited by cold, there were far fewer species, and their sparseness accentuated their purity and perfection. The only fauna we saw in any number were bald eagles. There was another one around every bend, perched in a tree or winging over the water. We must have seen a hundred.
The only outside intrusions were from Thunderbird Lodge, on a lake above Weaver, which American fishermen paid big bucks to be flown into, and once a year a party of Swiss teenage prisoners was taken down and put through a three-week wilderness survival ordeal in the hopes of straightening them out. Perro had heard the success rate was high. At one point several miles of forest along the left bank, ignited by lightning, had burned during last summer’s severe drought. Already a thick sea of luminous green poplar saplings was competing to replace the charred poles. But this was natural (unless the drought was linked to global warming, which it probably was), and we are told good for forest regeneration that sections of it burn down every once in a while.
How lucky these people are, I thought, despite their sense of irreparable loss and the social and environmental havoc that came with the arrival of Europeans. They have what they need from the modern world, and they still have their homeland, their language, and the basic continuity, though minus many elements, of a culture that goes back thousands of years. Unlike us Salty Ones, as the Cree call white European people (those who came from across the ocean). Most Salty Ones—there are two hundred “cultural communities” of us in Montreal alone– are exiles who have lost our culture, our homeland (which we usually had to leave under duress), our community (in our post-industrial neolocal society, we don’t settle down and raise our families in the place where we grew up if we can help it), or our family (our grown-up children having scattered to the winds). Maybe it was because we lost a deep spiritual connection to a natural landscape, internalized and developed over many generations, that we treated so horribly the people who still had one. Or maybe we just wanted the riches and the land they were on.
The river made the case for itself. Anybody who made this trip would leave with the certain conviction that this wilderness is very special and eminently deserving of World Heritage designation. I have been to many World Heritage sites around the world, and this richly drained (not poorly drained, as the boreal shield is often described, but swiftly and strongly drained by a web of seething torrents) woods is right up there. There was a logic and an unfathomable subtlety to the flow of the land and the water. The shape and placement of every tree and rock, every sound that pierced the silence, seemed completely random, yet just right. It was not hard to believe, as the Ojibway, Cree, and all native people do, that there was a Creator, because this was a creation. “Everything has a spirit, even rocks,” Ray Rabliauskus had told me. “The goose knows when to go south. This is how nature works. The Creator [Semanito, for whom Manitoba is named] made a system better than any we can devise.”
He was right, I mused. Nothing anyone could do to this boreal Eden could possibly make it any better than the way it was. I was glad it was in the hands of people who believed , as Victoria explained, “that the Creator gave us these resources to take care of them. This is what defines us as first nations.” and the best way to do this was to disturb and take as little as possible, to let it be for all of us.
“Well keep it up,” I told her. “You’re doing a beautiful job.”