The Crees and Inuit have the James Bay Agreement. On the other side of the bay, five Native Bands located on the Churchill and Nelson River systems have the Northern Flood Agreement.
The Flood Agreement was signed by the federal government, the provincial government of Manitoba, Manitoba Hydro and the five reserves in December 1977.
Kenneth B. Strong remembers two years before that signing when he watched the signing of the James Bay Agreement and the strong emotions that were felt by the Crees who had sought a permanent injunction.
He knows the same feelings were felt by his people two years later. The native peoples living in the areas affected by the Lake Winnipeg-Churchill Falls Diversion Project in northern Manitoba experienced major negative impacts. The project resulted in radical changes in water levels because of the dams. Other noticeable effects included a drop in the number of fish caught in affected lakes, and in some lakes, fish died out completely.
The fluctuating water levels are responsible for an increase in the amount of debris floating around. This has resulted in considerable damage to boats, motors and nets. When water levels drop, this creates new unseen shoals. Mud flats and reedy swamps also add to the dangers of navigation. Water levels that drop in the wintertime create air pockets and slush ice, making winter travel difficult. As in the Cree territory, hunting and trapping have been greatly affected.
Strong is a Cree from the Split Lake Band, one of the five Bands that signed the agreement. He now works for the Manitoba Assembly of First Nations. Today he is seeing an attempt by the governments to renegotiate the Northern Flood Agreement as if it were just a contract.
But the Bands don’t want to reopen the agreement. Instead, they want the federal government to live up to its obligations under the agreement and as a fiduciary to First Nations.
“The NFA has not been honoured,” Strong said at the recent Water and Indigenous Peoples conference in Montreal. “Instead, Canada along with Manitoba and Manitoba Hydro have spent the last 17 years minimizing and avoiding their obligations by saying that the words we all agreed to back in 1977 mean something different than what we thought. Their lawyers have hidden behind strict interpretations that have no bearing on the intent of the agreement. The parties have spent enormous energy, time and money on stalling, divide and conquer, and ‘starve them out’ tactics. Over the years the parties have made several attempts to buy out the agreement rather than implement it.”
Later on, in an interview with The Nation, Strong said the Northern Flood Agreement forces the five Bands to pay for any new compensation claims out of their original settlement. “The damning thing about the Split Lake arrangement is the indemnity provisions that are contained in the agreement. Basically it assures Canada, Manitoba and Manitoba Hydro that whatever they pay out, Split Lake in this case would have to honour that pay-out. In other words if they paid out $15 million to other claimants, Split Lake would be obligated to pay Canada, Manitoba or Hydro $15 million from our settlement,” he said.
Strong said the agreement’s lump-sum compensation payments are not beneficial to the bands and are an easy street for Manitoba Hydro to take. The bands feel they are not being considered full partners in resource development on their lands.
Strong says that if he was put in a corner and if the government wanted a new deal, then the bands should receive monies every year the hydro-project is in place producing electricity. A “real” partnership would also include full and complete environmental-impact statements, as well as mitigation measures and a host of other issues. Mitigation planning would have to be done in advance of any project.
“I think that type of arrangement would be short and uncomplicated—easy to understand and the money would flow in perpetually as long as the project is there. This notion of negotiating complicated deals such as what the James Bay Agreement is all about, and what I expect will be the result of the signed agreement yesterday [the Inuit and Hydro-Quebec], are not necessarily in the best interests of the people who signed them. I’m talking about the indigenous people,” he said.
“The governments and the Crown corporations are too massive. They’ve got a lot of human resources behind them. They are able to negotiate arrangements with hidden clauses, hidden meanings to words that they can use in the future to take away the rights that the people think they negotiated. The government is able to use the-army of lawyers behind them to put the words in place that would be in their favour in the event of judicial challenges or judicial interpretations.”