Dozens of residents from across northern Manitoba First Nations assembled outside of Tataskweyak Cree Nation to support a blockade leading to the Keeyask Generating Station construction camp on Wednesday evening to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The highway lockdown started nearly a week ago to prevent workers from entering the Manitoba Hydro development site.
Nathan Neckoway, a band councillor with Tataskweyak, said the blockade is uniting communities in northern Manitoba to help send a strong message to the province and Manitoba Hydro.
“We’re trying to protect the lives of people in the north.”
Neckoway is named in an injunction order issued earlier this week along with other leadership in the community.
On Wednesday, RCMP officers arrived at the blockade to serve them.
Neckoway calls the move “disrespectful.”
“They came and gave it to us. Our chief and the other chiefs expressed their concerns. We ripped it up,” he said.
Video posted on social media shows Tataskweyak Chief Doreen Spence ripping up the injunction papers after RCMP handed them to her. The shredded papers were then thrown into a fire at the site.
Tataskweyak, War Lake and York Factory First Nations and Fox Lake Cree Nation are partners in the Keeyask project. They have been calling for a halt to construction during the pandemic.
Manitoba Hydro and the four communities came to an agreement in early May to address construction planning during the pandemic, however Neckoway said the they were blindsided when they found out Hydro was sending up to 1,000 new workers to the site beginning this week.
This prompted Tataskweyak and then Fox Lake to set up blockades and the south and north entrances of the camp.
RCMP officers have yet to enforce the injunction saying they would only do so if there are safety concerns.
“The RCMP respects and protects the right to peaceful demonstrations as guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Everyone has a right to peaceful freedom of expression. The general public, local residents and businesses also have the right to a safe environment,” Cpl. Julie Courchaine said in a statement.
“The RCMP is on scene and monitoring the demonstrations being held near the Manitoba Hydro Keeyask Power Generating Station project. We are mindful of our roles and responsibilities to the public, to keep the peace and to be part of the solution.”
Down south in Winnipeg a small prayer camp in support of the northern First Nations is set up outside the Manitoba Legislative building.
They held a rally at the same time the injunction was served.
Organizers and people in attendance stated inadequate healthcare systems in First Nations leave communities vulnerable if the virus was to make its way up north.
There are no documented cases of COVID-19 on any First Nation in the province.
All non-essential travel is currently banned in northern Manitoba but this will change in the coming weeks as the province begins phase two of its reopening.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about the blockades on Thursday but was vague with his answer.
“I think every community needs to make sure they’re taking decisions to protect their members but I think there are many ways of going about it,” Trudeau told reporters.
“We need to make sure that all orders of government including Indigenous government are working together with the same goal, which we all share which is keeping Canadians as safe as possible.”
Nineteen workers essential to the security and maintenance of the Keeyask site were flown by helicopter Wednesday from Gillam Airport to Keeyask, Manitoba Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen told APTN News. There are approximately 300 employees still at the site.
Manitoba Hydro has temporarily suspended the shift change until the blockades can be resolved.
“The inability to move supplies such as food and other essential provisions past the blockades is now putting those workers at risk,” said Owen.