- What Is Lost and What Is Gained: A Travelogue of Tours of Hydro-Affected Communities in Northern Manitoba
Hydroelectric development may not appear ‘extractive’ in the same way as the mining, oil and gas, or forestry industries; however, it is an environmentally catastrophic endeavour that severely damages the material bases of ways of life in the middle and far north of Canada and impacts environments hundreds of kilometres beyond generating stations. In northern Manitoba, because there are no significant canyons to fill, land is flooded, and the impoundment creates huge artificial lakes and low-lying reservoirs. Transmission lines necessitate clear-cuts through thousands of acres of pristine boreal forest. Producing energy in the winter means reversing normal ecological cycles so that water flows can be increased; these artificial fluctuations destroy the ecologically rich riparian wetlands that normally edge rivers and lakes in boreal country. Water becomes undrinkable, fish become dangerous to eat, and cultural heritage becomes a casualty. Like other extractive industries, hydroelectric development occurs within Canadian state and market frameworks that make racial redistribution of wealth ‘common sense’ for subjects performing their interests.
Relationship is a fundamental concept within the epistemology of bush people. An intricate and interconnected web of relations among people and the animate and inanimate worlds governs Anishinaabe, Ininew, Dene, and Inuit ways of seeing, knowing, and doing. Bush cultures, the symbolic expression of the practices of people still immersed in the life of the forest, perform face-to-face relationships; situational ethics; respect for personal autonomy; casual informality belying firm, long-established local protocols; and, not least, a humorous temperament.
Bridging the settler-colonial chasm demands that we build and nurture relationships that challenge and disrupt socially pathological hierarchies of colonial dominance. These relationships require ‘wahkohtowin’: a Cree term that is typically used to refer to ‘kinship’ but can also denote cultural codes of conduct, thus mediating or informing relations and relationships. In 2014, we (Peter Kulchyski and Ramona Neckoway) began touring hydro-impacted Ininew communities. This now-annual hydro tour is an intense seven-day circuit filled with long drives, boat tours, discussion, revelation, outrage, and—above all— kindness and generosity. Relationships on the hydro tour involve engagement with bush dispositions, with ways of life developed in and through an engagement with the temporalities, spatialities, subjectivities, languages, and knowledges of egalitarian gathering and hunting peoples.
In the city, hydroelectricity is taken for granted; it is seen through the possessive, instrumental rationality that underlines people’s roles as workers and citizens. This contrasts with the face-to-face encounters between community- and urban-based activists, artists, and academics that occur during the hydro [End Page 22] tours. Those participating may witness Ininew performances and embodied practices that are both culturally specific and fundamentally human. The relationships developed on the hydro tour enact performances of care and vulnerability in which ethical concern responds to festering social wounds. Perceiving vulnerability and responding to it with care is labour, the work of relationship. Distribution of social wealth is unequal, raced, and gendered, yet it can be transformed through caring practice; such transformations require Ininew leadership.
In Misipawistik, the site of the first large-scale hydro project in the mid-sixties, we meet up with Gerald McKay, who drew us into political action in 2005. Gerald is an outstanding host; for years, he has fed the tour group fried pickerel and taken visitors to important sites in and near the community. We gather around Gerald’s table; walk to look at the dam and silenced rapids, which is now gravel bed; and drive through the fancy hydro workers’ town, a sharp contrast with nearby Ininew communities. Gerald points out numerous indignities and tragedies. He looks us in the eyes and shakes his head mildly in disbelief, condemnation, and awe at what he, his family, and his community have had to survive, and at Manitoba Hydro’s vicious decisions. His smiling blue eyes flash occasionally with anger that is rueful, urgent. Gerald points out that hydro employees’ houses have subsidized heating, while local people have their power cut off. Hydro tours starkly reveal these dichotomies.