Jake Epp, the head of Ontario Power Generation, made a personal visit to Dalles First Nation Thursday so he could acknowledge the pain caused by the devastation of flooding associated with hydro dams.
Epp, who served at the federal cabinet table, recognized the self-sufficient lifestyle that existed before industrialization was impacted by development along the Winnipeg River.
“Over 50 years ago, your land was flooded by the construction of Whitedog Generating Station … In the years that followed the flooding, and construction of the generating station our people did not appreciate nor respect the importance of your cultural and social practices. Procedures were followed that neither properly informed you nor allowed for your direct participation,” he said, during his address to the community.
Epp, who served as a cabinet minister and MP from Provencher, MB, noted he’d become familiar with the area and the issue, during frequent trips to the area with his family.
Historical records for the Ochiichagwe’babigo’ining First Nation date back to 1893. Five years later, the Norman Dam was built, and the government started to get involved in regulating the water flow upstream.
By 1917, reports show a major impact on members of the community, which was made worse by the introduction of the paper mill. In 1939, non-native land owners were compensated for their losses associated with logging, but not the First Nation.
Instead, the government tried to get members to surrender the land, so further diversion work could be done.
Between 1956 and 1970, the population declined steadily, until there was nobody left. At this time, the commercial fishery was also closed, due to an excess of mercury contamination.
Elder Alice Kelly, who was born on the First Nation, recalled the memories of her mother, auntie and brother, as she spoke of her time on the grievance committee.
“I’m really happy to see everybody come and share in this,” she said.
Band councillor John Henry had been involved in the settlement process for more than a decade. He promised the money involved would be placed in trust for 40 years, so the benefits could be shared with children and grandchildren.
“This is a great moment in our history here,” he said.
Chief Lorraine Cobiness noted she wasn’t born yet when these tragedies occurred, but she still recognized the importance of the apology and restitution.
“A lot of the wrongs that have been done to this community have been acknowledged here today,” she said.
“Rest assured … In the future, we will be heard.”
The chief also called for a new era of open government, as the community rebuilt for future generations.
While Grassy Narrows and Whitedog came to terms in the 1980s, Dalles and Wabauskang were left out of the process. Residents from these communities have since come forward with their stories of destruction and loss.
The terms of the agreement between Ontario Power Generation and Dalles were not released.
Dalles has been struggling with the combined effects of a booming youth population and a lack of employment. Last winter, an addictions counsellor from the community crawled on his hands and knees toward Kenora, in a bid to get help.
An important part of the rebuilding process is economic development. This includes the Common Ground initiative with the city, neighbouring First Nations and Treaty 3 at Tunnel Island.
Professional facilitator and amateur historian Cuyler Cotton was initially invited to help the Dalles in its negotiations with Ontario Hydro. He’s also involved in the Common Ground talks.
“The land takes care of us, and we need to understand that,” he said Thursday.
In his research, he’d found the community was once the traditional seat of government, since it controlled the trade routes. There were also healthy supplies of fish, game, wild rice and berries around.
Band Councillor Terry Greene, whose family used to live on an island near the community, compared this week’s statement with the prime minister’s apology to residential school survivors last month. While it was good to hear governments acknowledge past wrongs done to former students, Greene was still waiting for the government to fully honour his claim.
The community of about 300 is located about 20 minutes north of Kenora.
Article Credit: Mike Aiken @ Kenora Daily Miner and News