First Nations demand MB Hydro temporarily shut down Keeyask site over COVID-19 outbreak

The chiefs of four First Nations surrounding the Keeyask hydroelectric project in northern Manitoba are calling on Manitoba Hydro to temporarily shut the site down to stamp out an outbreak of COVID-19. 

As of Wednesday, 23 Hydro workers at the Keeyask site in northern Manitoba are confirmed positive cases of COVID-19, while another eight workers were “not clear” and awaiting their test results to return from Cadham Provincial Lab, according to Manitoba Hydro’s website. 

The site was moved to the code red (critical) level of the province’s pandemic response system on Tuesday.

But in a virtual news conference Wednesday, the chiefs of Tataskweyak Cree Nation, Fox Lake Cree Nation, War Lake First Nation, and York Factory Cree Nation said that was little to no comfort to them. 

They said their demands for timely, accurate information about the outbreak have fallen on deaf ears at Manitoba Hydro, and called on the federal government to step in. 

Chief Morris Beardy of Fox Lake Cree Nation said he’s afraid he won’t be able to protect his members. 

“We need this information in a timely manner, I can not stress this enough,” he said.  “It’s ugly … it puts us in a real tough spot.” 

He said they don’t know whether the Keeyask outbreak has spread to their communities because of the lack of information they’ve been getting. 

He slammed Manitoba Hydro’s handling of the outbreak, demanding that they admit it’s gotten out of control. 

“They’ve failed severely, and look what us four Cree nations, we’re having to do their work for them. We have to step up,” he said. 

Chief Doreen Spence of Tataskweyak Cree Nation said she knows of two members of her community who have tested positive and may have contracted the virus through Keeyask. One is currently in hospital. 

Dozens of people from the four First Nations work at Keeyask or have been on the site in the last few weeks. Many of them live on reserve, the chiefs said. 

That’s why the Keeyask outbreak could be “superspreader,” said Chief Leroy Constant of York Factory First Nation.

Four nearby First Nations are involved in the Keeyask hydro project. With an outbreak of COVID-19 at the site, chiefs of the First Nations are concerned it could be a “superspreader” incident. (Duk Han Lee/CBC)

In addition, the First Nations as well as the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs called into question the accuracy of Manitoba Hydro’s rapid testing mechanism.

Claims ‘patently false’: MB Hydro

Manitoba Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen disputed the claims made during Wednesday’s news conference with First Nations leaders. 

“With the first indication of COVID-19 on site at Keeyask, Manitoba Hydro took immediate action to address the presence of COVID-19, to test and trace all on-site staff, and prevent the spread of the virus,” he said via email. 

He also called claims that Hydro hasn’t been transparent with it’s First Nation partners “patently false.”

“We have and continue to engage daily with our partners and neighbouring communities, including supporting their individual pandemic response plans, and provide updates on the situation as new information become available,” he said. 

The testing on site is being done by Intrinsic Analytics of Winnipeg, which does a PCR test on site. PCR tests are used to directly detect the presence of an antigen, rather than the presence of the body’s immune response, or antibodies. 

The testing technology used at Keeyask for initial screening tests involves the same PCR technology and machines used by provincial public health officials, Owen said. 

As to staffing at the site, Owen said Manitoba Hydro has stopped the movement of inbound workers with exception of a small number of staff required to maintain critical project operations. Those workers will continue to be tested prior to travelling to site, Owen said. 

The issue came up in the House of Commons Wednesday, when Churchill-Keewatinook Aski MP Niki Ashton called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to intervene during question period.

“This could put our entire region at risk,” she said. 

Trudeau said his government is monitoring the situation closely and will support First Nations leadership in working to protect their communities, but stopped short of saying they would step in. 

A spokesperson for the federal Minister of Indigenous Services said that while the Keeyask Generating Station is under the jurisdiction of the Manitoba provincial government, the federal government “is always ready to collaborate in a constructive dialogue with the parties if they so request.”

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