Woman standing in front of Grand Rapids generating station.
Photo courtesy of Brad Leitch

Ellen Cook at the Grand Rapids generating station in 2017. 


Playing time: 
Join Threads for a conversation about hydropower with Dr. Ellen Cook.


Listen in as our host Kyle Rudge discusses the impacts of hydropower on Indigenous communities with Dr. Ellen Cook and Kerry Saner-Harvey.

Threads, formerly known as Word and Deed, was established in April 2007. It is a 15-minute radio program by KR Words featuring the work of MCC in Manitoba and around the world. Threads broadcasts on CFAM AM 950, CHSM AM 1250 and CHRB AM 1220 at 8:45 am on the first Sunday of the month. 

Audio transcription:

Kyle Rudge (00:02):

It begins with a single thread, woven through other thread, and then another, and another until we have a single piece of fabric. That fabric is stretched, cut and stitched together with another just like it. [MUSIC]

This process is repeated over and over and over until we have a beautiful tapestry that all began with a single thread. Welcome to MCC Threads, where we look closely at how our stories in Manitoba weave together with the stories of MCC and its partners around the world.

I grew up in northern Manitoba, like 12 hours drive and when you run out of road, kind of northern Manitoba, a little town called Gillam. And my first memories were things like biking through the forest, watching bears at the dump, playing hockey and fishing. My father worked for Manitoba Hydro. He was a welder at Radisson Station. It seemed like a fairly peaceful and well straightforward life growing up.

Dr. Ellen Cook (01:18):

Hello, my name is Dr. Ellen cook. I am First Nations from Misapawistik Cree Nation. And I am calling from St. Francois Xavier, where I have lived for 22 years. And I am considered a language keeper and a knowledge keeper, and I'm still teaching my language to university students.

Kyle Rudge (01:40):

However, a few years back, I realized something about my growing up there. There was a divide in the town. Many of us lived in houses like me, two stories, separate bedrooms, full basements, a deck, gazebo back, and the other half lived in rundown shelters with dirt floors.

Dr. Ellen Cook (01:56):

Well, the way you describe how you lived, that's the way it was in the, what they called High Board. They didn't even call it Grand Rapids. They called it High Board and they had fancy homes and, and and paved driveways and the hospital. And the,

Kyle Rudge (02:14):

I realized that while my perspective may be different, the context was very similar to the way Ellen grew up. She grew up in Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids is approximately four and a half hours north of Winnipeg. And I remember when I was young, it was the place in which the paved roads ran out and we drove gravel. The rest of the way to Gillam.

Dr. Ellen Cook (02:39):

We have the three communities. We have the reserve with poor housing and, although it is improving a little bit in the past several years. And then we had the town where the Metis or half breed people lived, and then there was a hydro community. And we were kind of the buffer between the, between the, the two. I had a very good friend that her and I just, she and I just kind of connected when they moved into the community. And we spent a lot of time together and she would come to my place, but she would never invite me to her place. And it wasn't until 50 years later, we reconnected. And she told me it was because her parents thought that we were just dirty Indians and that we shouldn't be inviting dirty Indians into their home.

Kyle Rudge (03:40):

My perspective was one of childhood wonder. I didn't see any downsides, not, not willfully ignoring them, but it was mostly out of ignorance. I just didn't know to look. So of course it begs the question. What else did I miss?

Kerry Saner-Harvey (03:58):

Hi, my name is Kerry Saner-Harvey. I work with MCC Manitoba as the coordinator for the Indigenous Neighbours Program. And as part of this group, I've been part of that role, I've been with the Interchurch Council on Hydropower sitting in with them for almost six years now.

Kyle Rudge (04:14):

Like you right now, you're probably wondering what is the Interchurch Council on Hydropower and what would an Interchurch Council have to do with hydropower and what is MCC's involvement? These were all questions that I had for Kerry.

Kerry Saner-Harvey (04:34):

Maybe I'll back up and start with sort of MCC's connection to it. MCC's work with hydro-related justice, I think goes back a long time. Actually, I think believe to the, like the 1970s, something like that. When folks like Menno Wiebe were engaged with Project North and the Aboriginal Rights Coalition. And from that work emerged the Interchurch Task Force on Northern Flooding in 1974, which was the, the first iteration of the Interchurch Council on Hydropower. And I think it goes back so long because that was the time that the Churchill River diversion was created. That was a project which massively reengineered the natural, natural northern watershed of northern Manitoba. And essentially it reversed the flow of a major river system.

So, the impacts of hydro have been a major concern for many decades and MCC's been a part of that. Um, then of course the name of the group has been since changed to the Interchurch Council on Hydropower. And we continue to have representatives from different faith backgrounds and others as well as sort of part of it. But it's kind of cool that this partnership with MCC goes back long before I was in this position. Um, so a number of my predecessors were involved as well, and there are folks who are no longer active members, but are still connected in various ways as well. So that's a, it's neat to see how, um, it connects with larger the larger community.

Dr. Ellen Cook (05:56):

It was started by a group of clergy, mostly I think from United Church that was Stan McKay and Bob McMurtry, Doug McMurtry, and and Menno Wiebe was involved in that and they did initiated an inquiry into the Northern Flood Agreement. And our our main job is to advocate for the people that whose voices are not heard people that are affected by hydro development, because it is mostly Indigenous communities that are affected, affected by the building of hydro dams.

Kyle Rudge (06:36):

I know my growing up perspective is radically different than the growing up that Ellen had in Grand Rapids.

Dr. Ellen Cook (06:44):

I was a teenager going into my teens when the construction started in Grand Rapids and we had no idea what was going on. My father didn't really know what the results were gonna be of what they were doing. He was hired to first of all, in the 1950s to take engineers and not up and down the river, I don't know what they were doing. My father didn't know what was going on, but I guess they were kind of scoping out the joint, scoping out the place to see what could be done. And we loved those rapids. You know, we went up those rapids many times in the first 15 years of my life. We were up and down those rapids and my dad was an expert boats man and he was known for that. And so we were never afraid going through those grand rapids.

And then there, there was a whole series of rapids there. The next one was a Red Rock Rapids, which was just a few kilometres from the Grand Rapids. And then there was a Flying Post and then there was a Demicharge. So there was just a whole series of beautiful rapids along that river and which have since disappeared. So losing that and losing our way of life and, and the animals, what the animals did like because in Grand Rapids, they flooded, I forget how much it was, hectares and hectares of forest anyway. And we still see it, a result of that flooded forest even today because there's still a dead heads, driftwood that are floating around as a trees uproot from the bottom of the reservoir.

Kyle Rudge (08:30):

One of my memories growing up was biking out to a place near a dam and building giant structures out of all of the driftwood that washed up on shore. I had never asked the question, why did all this drift wood exist? I had no idea the environmental impacts that these hydroelectric dams were having on my surroundings.

Dr. Ellen Cook (09:01):

It just really impacted us when the construction started. Of course, the first thing that was built there in our community, not, not on the hydro at the, not at the hydro camp, but in our community, they built a, a, a beer parlor and a hotel, you know, at the same time people were sending their kids away to residential school. And, and before, before construction started, the airplanes used to come in the fall to pick up the kids. And then we knew as soon as we heard the airplanes coming, that the kids were gonna be leaving town. And we lived on the, on the town side of the river. So we didn't get sent away to school, but the kids from the reserve were sent away. You know, the parents tried to keep the kids home, but they weren't allowed to. And then when the plane would take off, we could hear it, you know, going over the treetops and then hearing the sound of the parents. And then they would go home, grieve for their kids I imagine. When the construction started and that beer parlour was right there, people started to drink where I had never seen people, you know, drinking and getting drunk like we did then when when the people started drinking at the beer parlour.

Kyle Rudge (10:26):

It wasn't a willful ignorance. I just didn't know to look.

Kerry Saner-Harvey (10:33):

We say that we care about creation and I, and we do. And we care about the land and we care about justice and the people. And I think that's what this is about. I think much of the reason that MCC is involved with I, the Interchurch Council on Hydropower is because of the relationships, the long relationships that we've developed being on the ground in, throughout the history of MCC, I think past MCC service workers in the north often saw firsthand the impacts of hydro in these communities. And they developed strong relationships, which has been, I think, part of the reason that MCC's continue to engage this question, but also then there's the, you know, the current friendships, the partnerships that we have, like Ellen whose lives and community have been greatly affected by hydro. And so I think also our reason for being engaged with this with MCC goes back to the mission and purpose of the Interchurch Council on Hydro, which is to help the faith community to take part in the public debate on hydro development in Manitoba, because we as churches and as individuals are consumers of electricity, our offices are here in treaty one and they consume hydro from the north.

And it's important for us, I think as Christians and as a peacebuilding organization, that MCC is, to ensure that when there are resources that we benefit from that there is also justice for the people and the land in the place where that those resources come from. And in that regard also, I think that this work is becoming even more important now, as we examine our sources of energy in relation to climate change we say, we're saying that climate justice is now a priority for MCC which entails not only thinking about where our energy comes from, but also how it impacts the land and the people in, in a just way in an equitable way.

Dr. Ellen Cook (12:24):

I would prefer that we don't just rely on hydroelectricity because I don't consider it sustainable. I don't consider it green. Only the water turns green and around hydro generating stage. I, I would suggest using a variety of because no matter what we do, we are affecting the environment. And we say what we do to the environment we are doing to ourselves.

Kerry Saner-Harvey (12:51):

Not an not, there's not an easy solution that I can say. I mean, I'm not an expert. I, I mean, I we're working on this together. So <laugh> you, if you ask me if there's like one, you know, magic bullet kind of alternative, I don't think there is. I do think that hydro can have its place, but it also ha we have to be really cautious that we're doing it in a way that is done not only in with consultation with Indigenous peoples, but also in a way that really takes into consideration the effects on the land.

Kyle Rudge (13:26):

This is the type of conversation that could go on for hours and hours at a time. There is so much to it. And if you are interested in learning more head to hydrojustice.org.

To shift gears slightly MCC Manitoba is excited to be offering a variety of summer events over the next couple of months that we wanted to tell you about from the beginning of June, until the end of August, you can join the MCC Thrifters Tour by visiting many of the 16 MCC Thrift shops across the province, and by inviting friends and family to join you on your customized thrifter's tour, you can enter to win thrift gift cards and merch packs. Next there's the 34-kilometre trail ride at Riding Mountain National Park with Cycle Clear Lake. That's on July 2nd. Be sure to sign up by June 15th to participate. And finally, there's the MCC Golf Tournament, a relaxed day on the green July 7th. Funds raised by both Cycle Clear Lake and MCC Golf Tournament supports critical response to the worldwide displacement crisis. Your participation will provide shelter, food, trauma healing, and more to refugees and internally displaced people around the world. For more information about all of these events and to sign up, please visit mccmb.ca/events. I'm Kyle Rudge and this is MCC Threads. [MUSIC]

Transcribed by https://www.temi.com