First Nations near Manitoba’s Keeyask Hydro project want it shut down

First Nations in northern Manitoba are calling for the halt to construction at the Keeyask Generating Station during the pandemic after reports of employees coming and going from the construction camp.

The multi-billion dollar Manitoba Hydro project has been operating with a scaled back crew since last month, but the area’s member of Parliament said local First Nations are concerned new protocols will not protect workers or nearby communities.

“We need to be stepping up our efforts and that means making sure workers at Keeyask are safe right now, and it also means that if Keeyask cannot operate without contractors coming in and out then we have to be looking and talking about a temporary shut down as many First Nations and the partner First Nations have already raised,” NDP MP Niki Ashton told APTN News.

First Nations started calling for the shut down last month.

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, an advocacy group representing northern First Nations, urged Manitoba Hydro to close the Keeyask construction site as there is, “persistent concern that the 600 plus workers currently on site will bring COVID-19 to nearby communities.”

The project is being developed in partnership between Manitoba Hydro, Tataskweyak Cree Nation, War Lake First Nation, York Factory First Nation and Fox Lake Cree Nation.

APTN reached out to the communities but did not receive a response.

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The Crown corporation operates a construction camp, which currently houses 700 employees or just over half of the normal staff, according to Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen.

Owen said Hydro has taken several initiatives the spread of COVID-19 including: longer work rotations, adding health staff and phone screenings prior to staff returning to the camp.

However, Ashton said reports of 10 new cooks coming into the camp to replace staff who have already left is concerning.

“These workers are being brought in without any commitment to self-isolate for 14 days…and they’re coming in to work in a camp where everybody lives together so a very risky situation at the best of times never mind when we’re dealing with a pandemic,” she said.

Protocols to allow staff to return to camp have been approved by the Northern Health Authority, said Owen.

While workers do not have to self-isolate for 14 days once arriving they are, “required to take daily temperature check and fill out a daily health survey.”

During Wednesday’s daily briefing the province’s top public health officer told reporters he was confident in the measures Hydro has implemented.

“We’ve looked at these sites…and the process that’s in place we feel is adequate to prevent the risk,” said Dr. Brent Roussin.

“We’ll keep monitoring the situation as it goes.”

APTN asked Manitoba Hydro what it would take to halt construction.

“We won’t speculate to that,” Owen said in an email. “Suffice it to say there have been no cases of COVID-19 at the Keeyask facility thanks to the measures we have put in place to prevent the spread of the virus at site and to surrounding communities.”

Owen added they’ve had nine people who were transferred off-site for assessment or testing. One was tested at Keeyask before being transferred out, five were tested in their home jurisdictions and three were sent home but deemed by local authorities to not require testing.

All tests done came back negative.

Reporter / Winnipeg

Brittany joined the APTN news team in October 2016. She is Ojibway and a member of the Long Plain First Nation in Manitoba. Before coming to APTN, she graduated with a joint degree in communications from the University of Winnipeg and Red River College.