Leadership from Tataskweyak Cree Nation have shut down a portion of a highway in northern Manitoba leading to the Keeyask Generating Station construction camp over concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic, and will continue to block traffic despite provincial court issuing an injunction to cease blockades.
More than 1,000 workers are expected to make their way to the camp beginning Tuesday.
Nathan Neckoway, a band councillor with Tataskweyak, said the move puts First Nations at risk.
“We’re here to protect our community, we’re here to protect other communities and all in all we’re here to protect northern Manitoba from COVID-19,” Neckoway told APTN News over the phone Tuesday afternoon.
The community set up what they’re calling a highway lockdown over the long weekend.
By Monday Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench issued an injunction ordering the First Nation remove their blockade on Provincial Road 280. The injunction is in effect for ten days.
“I don’t understand why these people in the southern areas are making these calls and doing a threat with an injunction,” said Neckoway. “To me, an injunction does not apply in a time like today. COVID-19 is in Manitoba.”
Tataskweyak is one of the four First Nations in partnership with the project known collectively as the Keeyask Cree Nations, which also includes War Lake and York Factory First Nations and Fox Lake Cree Nation. All four have been calling for a halt to construction during the pandemic. They are concerned a lack of infrastructure and health services as well as overcrowded homes in the communities will mean the virus will hit First Nations harder than others.
There have been no documented cases of COVID-19 on any First Nation in the province.
Manitoba Hydro initially scaled back its crew and kept employees at the camp for up to eight weeks to prevent changeover.
“For their wellbeing, we need to rotate in replacement staff so work can safely continue,” Scott Powell, Manitoba Hydro’s director of corporate communications, said in a statement.
“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,” Powell added.
The First Nations say they were never a part of the pandemic planning, which goes against the partnership of the project.
“We have been discussing these issues for weeks, but it seems that our partners at Manitoba Hydro are not interested in hearing our concerns. This is not how a partnership is supposed to operate,” York Factory First Nation Chief Leroy Constant said in a statement.
“We have raised the issue of putting Keeyask into ‘care and maintenance mode,’ which would mean the operation is reduced to 250 workers without advancing construction. If Manitoba Hydro was to reduce the number of people working at the project while we come to terms with this pandemic, it would show respect for the concerns we have for our people’s health and wellness.”
Manitoba Hydro said they’ve been in discussion with the communities since March and made adjustments to the plan in early May based off of community input.
The province’s top doctor confirmed he endorsed Hydro’s plan in his daily briefing Tuesday.
“Those people being brought in from other jurisdictions are required to self-isolate for 14 days and receive a negative test before they go up there,” Dr. Brent Roussin told reporters.
“That is fitting with the public health guidance.”
Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee said this sends the wrong message.
“When it comes to the project it seems like [construction] is a priority over everybody else’s safety,” he said.
Current public health orders restrict non-essential travel into northern Manitoba. During the Victoria Day long weekend, RCMP charged eight people for violating that 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.
Manitoba Hydro expects approximately 200 out-of-province workers will be rotated on site and about 1,000 workers to be gradually rotated in the next month. Less than 10 of those workers will be from out-of-country.
A second blockade has been set up in Fox Lake Cree Nation.
Tataskweyak will continue with its own. Neckoway said RCMP officers have visited the site but so far haven’t enforced the injunction.
With files from The Canadian Press