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Provincial government brings in new board at Crown-owned Manitoba Hydro

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The Manitoba government overhauled the board at its Crown-owned energy utility Monday and gave it a new set of marching orders that includes advancing Indigenous reconciliation.

The NDP government, elected on Oct. 3, replaced all but one board member at Manitoba Hydro.

New members include Ben Graham, a former president and chief executive officer at Manitoba Public Insurance, who will take over as board chair. Other new members include Mike Spence, mayor of the northern town of Churchill, and Jamie Wilson, a vice-president at Red River College Polytechnic.

The new board will set "a direction that's focused on keeping rates affordable, growing our low-carbon economy here in Manitoba, and advancing reconciliation," Adrien Sala, the minister responsible for Manitoba Hydro, told reporters.

Sala issued a mandate letter to the board that calls for the establishment of an Indigenous advisory circle. The letter also reiterates earlier NDP promises such as moving to a net-zero energy grid by 2035, and freezing hydroelectric rates for one year at some point in the near future.

The rate freeze, promised during the election campaign, still has no firm date to begin.

"We're still committed to it, and again, as I've said here before, it's just a matter of how and when," Sala said.

Sala is also asking the board to examine options for more low-carbon energy generation and storage, including wind and solar power, and to work collaboratively with Indigenous communities.

"It is the clear expectation of our government that not only will Manitoba Hydro consult with Indigenous communities, but partner with them to advance economic reconciliation so that all Manitobans can benefit from our Crown corporation," the letter states.

The Opposition Progressive Conservatives said they are concerned that some of the new board members had served on the board when the NDP was previously in power -- a time during which cost overruns on major projects inflated the Crown corporation's debt.

"The NDP appears that they're going to be, perhaps, ready to repeat history," Tory hydro critic Grant Jackson said.

The mandate letter contains nothing to address the debt load, Jackson added, at a time when new spending is looming.

"We're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars in spending to shut down the natural gas grid to meet their net-zero-by-2035 commitment."

Most of Manitoba's electricity is generated by clean hydro power, but a small amount continues to come from natural gas.

The mandate letter also does not mention a campaign promise by the NDP to forbid Manitoba Hydro from charging different rates at different times of the day. The idea was mentioned as a possibility in the summer by former board chair Edward Kennedy, who said it could be a way to encourage people to use electricity more at off-peak hours.

Sala's staff said the NDP remains committed to banning the idea.

The overhaul at Manitoba Hydro follows a similar changing of the board at Crown-owned Manitoba Public Insurance in October.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 4, 2023.

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