Injunction orders removal of blockade at Manitoba Hydro work site
WINNIPEG -- The Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench has issued an injunction against a blockade into a Manitoba Hydro work site in Northern Manitoba.
However, members of northern Manitoba First Nations who are worried about the spread of COVID-19 say they will maintain the blockade.
"Is life more important than a job? If that virus comes into our area and people start getting sick, they won't be able to work," Tataskweyak Cree Nation band councillor Nathan Neckoway said Tuesday.
"There are people dying from this virus."
Manitoba Hydro said on Tuesday the injunction orders Tataskweyak Cree Nation to “immediately remove their blockade” at Provincial Road 280 and the Keeyask Generating Station construction site.
“This injunction further proves the plan we have to safely resume regular work rotations at Keeyask protects both our workers and neighbouring communities from COVID-19,” said Scott Powell, Manitoba Hydro’s Director of Corporate Communications, in a statement Tuesday morning.
“Our plan goes above and beyond the latest public health guidelines and was endorsed by Dr. Roussin, Manitoba’s Chief Provincial Public Health Officer.”
The blockade went up on Friday. The Tataskweyak Cree Nation, one of the First Nations partnering with Hydro on the project, set up the blockade in an attempt to halt the potential spread of COVID-19 into the community.
The blockade comes ahead of a shift change for the project. Powell said over 500 employees and contractors had been on the site for eight weeks now, and new workers need to be brought in.
Powell said the injunction gives RCMP the power to “remove the blockade immediately.”
The Keeyask Project is located 725 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg on the lower Nelson River. In addition to Manitoba Hydro and the Tataskweyak Cree Nation, the project will also be owned by War Lake First Nation, York Factory First Nation and Fox Lake Cree Nation.
"As First Nations leaders, we are extremely frustrated," said York Factory First Nation Chief Leroy Constant in a statement.
Tataskweyak Chief Doreen Spence said other jurisdictions have placed resource development projects on hold until the risk of COVID-19 passes. War Lake First Nation Chief Betsy Kennedy added that allowing hundreds of people to travel to the site contradicts public health orders and puts First Nations at a significantly higher risk.
Current public health orders restrict non-essential travel into northern Manitoba. Over the Victoria Day long weekend, RCMP charged eight people for violating the restriction.
Neckoway said those same restrictions should be enforced for those entering the Keeyask site, especially since many of the workers are coming from regions across Canada hit hard by the pandemic, such as Quebec and Ontario.
The area so far has no cases of COVID-19, and Neckoway said it is a risk they don't want to take.
"We don't want a repeat of what happened in northern Saskatchewan. It only takes one person to infect the community."
An outbreak of more than 150 cases of COVID-19 in a Dene village and surrounding First Nations in Saskatchewan has been linked to travel from the Kearl oilsands work camp north of Fort McMurray, Alta.
Manitoba Hydro scaled back its work and suspended travel in and out of the construction site in mid-March. Neckoway said First Nations' leadership were wary of ongoing work there but agreed to the plan.
Last week, however, they learned that hundreds of new workers would be coming to the site for the planned shift change. Leaders from the four First Nations wrote to Manitoba Hydro about their concerns but the chiefs say they were not addressed.
That's when leaders and community members decided to implement on Friday what they call a "lockdown" at the main entrance to the site to block traffic from going in. The Fox Lake Cree Nation also issued a state of emergency and restricted access to the south side of the Keeyask site.
RCMP have been at the location, Neckoway said, but have not acted even though the injunction gives officers the authority to remove the blockade.
Neckoway said members will continue the blockade until they feel that their communities are safe.
"This is to protect the lives of northern Manitoba people."
-With files from CTV’s Mason DePatie and Kelly Geraldine Malone of The Canadian Press