Flooding forced my family to leave

Marginalized communities are often subjected to environmental hazards, like during the creation of Manitoba Hydro’s Grand Rapids dam.

We’ve teamed up with The Resolve, a great Canadian journalism outlet that aims to amplify the voices and stories of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) to look at environmental racism.

Environmental racism is when marginalized communities, usually home to people of lower socioeconomic status and BIPOC people, get hit harder by environmental hazards and pollution. 

An example close to home is the creation of Manitoba Hydro’s Grand Rapids dam. 

Back in the 1960s, about 300 people from Chemawawin First Nation were forced to leave their homes and livelihoods after the creation of the Grand Rapids dam doubled the size of Cedar Lake and put the community under water, including a graveyard containing the remains of 200 ancestors. 

The dam also destroyed a vital fish spawning area, killing 90 per cent of the Walleye, which decimated the livelihoods of local fishermen and the Chemawawin people.

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Unwanted industrial projects often end up in the backyards of marginalized communities, often because they don’t have the resources to fight back.

Winnipeg’s Point Douglas, one of Canada’s poorest neighbourhoods, is another example. The people living there have been exposed to throat-burning dust created by nearby scrap metal processing plants and soil contaminated by lead left behind by foundries and manufacturing companies that used to be in the area. 

There is a private member’s bill, Bill 226, before the Senate, which would require the federal government to examine the links between race, socioeconomic status, and environmental risk.

When Parliament passed the bill, elected officials agreed it was time to take a look at how environmental racism has occurred in Canada.

If the bill gets through the Senate (It’s currently undergoing its second reading out of three.) and becomes adopted, it would force the environment and climate change minister to devise a national strategy to tackle the problems caused by environmental racism.

Canada is lagging behind the U.S. when it comes to addressing environmental racism.

Almost 30 years ago, America established an environmental justice program to address the problem. 

Here in Canada, over 20 civil society organizations say our country’s legislation to tackle environmental racism is overdue. 

In 2019, the United Nations special rapporteur on toxic wastes and human rights visited Canada. (I had to look up the word rapporteur. It means: “a person appointed by an organization to report on the proceedings.”

The rapporteur observed many marginalized communities in Canada are being exposed to harmful industrial projects. 

When assessing the damage these projects do to these communities, the rapporteur found long delays or a complete absence of health assessments. Even when laws and policies are in place to protect communities, the rapporteur noted that enforcement and compliance fall short.

“There exists a pattern in Canada where marginalized groups, and Indigenous Peoples in particular, find themselves on the wrong side of a toxic divide, subject to conditions that would not be acceptable elsewhere in Canada,” according to the rapporteur’s report

The Resolve has been working on a series about environmental racism in Canada and has kindly let me reprint an excerpt where journalist Denée Rudder talks to Sonya Ballantyne, a Swampy Cree filmmaker from Winnipeg, about how their family was impacted by the flooding caused by the Grand Rapids dam.

Sonya Ballantyne. Photo supplied.

How Manitoba Hydro pushed families from their home

Sonya Ballantyne is a Swampy Cree filmmaker based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. They are originally from the Misipawistik First Nation in central northern Manitoba. 

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Forty-five minutes from their home town is Easterville, where their grandma lived. Their grandma and mother did not end up in Easterville by choice; they were forced to leave their home, which was destroyed by flooding caused by Manitoba Hydro’s Grand Rapids hydroelectric dam. 

This wasn’t the only time that Manitoba Hydro displaced an entire Indigenous community. In 1974, to generate electricity for the capital city of Winnipeg, the crown utility company diverted water from the Churchill River, which flooded and destroyed the land at O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation at South Indian Lake. 

“Northern and rural communities experience disproportionate harm from Manitoba Hydro developments, while the majority of the energy produced goes to meet the demand of southern urban communities,” wrote the Hydro Accountability Board (HAB) in an opinion article published by the Winnipeg Free Press in mid-April. The HAB is a partnership between the Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition and Wa Ni Ska Tan Alliance of Hydro-Impacted Communities.

“Energy is also sold for profit to out-of-province customers, including ones in the United States. Meanwhile, northern communities are left with high electricity costs; many also continue to experience environmental degradation, health risks and economic loss caused by Hydro developments.”

Below, Sonya talks about the impact that forced relocation has had on their family.

Sonya Ballantyne discusses the impact of forced relocation.

My name is Sonya Ballantyne. I go by she/her and they. I am currently in Winnipeg, Manitoba. But I’m also originally from the Misipawistik First Nation in central northern Manitoba.

Environmental racism is any effect to the environment that impacts people of colour predominantly. It’s been such a big thing in my life because of man-made structures that impacted my own people, specifically my grandparents. My mom and my grandmother were forced to move from where they grew up because of the flooding caused by a dam.

Before it was flooded, it was the biggest source of fossilized amber in the world. It was beautiful — they could have harvested all of it. And because of the dam, it’s all underwater now. 

The guy who decided to put it into place had done so because he wanted it to be one of his legacies. And it was this big passion project that he wanted to do. What do men in power want? More power. And that’s what they wanted, was to create this dam that wasn’t really needed and was going to impact four different communities of Native people. But it didn’t matter because it was just Native people so they didn’t really matter. 

My home community is called Grand Rapids. But because the dam is there now, there’s no rapids. There’s a lot of impact to how the land changed afterwards, as a result of the water not going where it needs to be — the impact to Lake Winnipeg, where it doesn’t have its normal source of water that it did in the past.

No matter where Native people are forced to relocate, there’s always another reason to relocate them. In the case of where I’m from, that always seemed to happen — where people had to move because the land was gonna be underwater from a dam. It’s always connected to us. There’s never a good place for us to be because there’s always going to be something to mine, or something to harness, or something to dig up, where we’re often blamed for the places where we live, even though that’s where we were put. And so it’s like, “well, if you didn’t want to travel two hours away, why did you guys live on a reserve?” I’m like, “You guys put us there.”

People think it’s just being forced from your land, but it’s the ongoing trauma of the mental health side too. A lot of people that my grandmother was contemporaries with were going to residential schools. My mom and my dad went to residential school. And we are only now breaking those cycles of trauma. I think the biggest thing is to try and curtail the need for greed, and the need for creating something just because you can — realizing that these things still have an impact. People like to act like things like that dam still don’t have an impact today, but it does. We need to  involve the communities that are going to be impacted. And just being open to listening to how it’s gonna impact people is a big thing.

This was the second part of a series The Resolve is doing on environmental racism. 

Read part 1: How Canada’s laws have failed to address environmental racism

If you’re interested in journalism about issues impacting Canada’s BIPOC communities, I encourage you to sign up to The Resolve’s newsletter here.

I learn something new in each issue, which comes out about once or twice a month. 

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