Sunday, January 16, 2022
One of my fondest memories from childhood was spending time with my maternal aunt, Myrtle Dysart (nee Spence), and my uncle, (her husband) Donald Dysart Sr. I call them Mom and Dad, in keeping with our matriarchal and matrilineal Nehetho/Ithiniw culture; my mother’s sisters are my ‘mothers’, and her brothers are my ‘fathers’. In the Nehetho tradition, you follow your mother’s line, and your children are also your sibling’s children. Thus, I call my maternal aunts and uncles “Mom and Dad”, which confuses a lot of people.
Similarly, my first cousins on my mother’s side are my siblings and I call them “brother” or “sister.” I was raised, moreover, to address people by our kinship relationship, and I was raised hearing people address each other in a similar fashion. For instance, a brother-in-law refers to his brother-in-law as “neestow,” and a sister-in-law refers to her brother-in-law as “nichim.” I share this information to provide context for the importance of family and kinship ties; these relationships and these values have been tarnished by colonialism and its subsequent effects.
When I was very young, my family would spend time at fish camps with other families within our extended family. I fondly remember spending a lot of time with my uncle Donnie and my aunt Myrtle, and especially with my auntie Sarah and my uncle Rob. I was always in awe of commercial fishermen. I had, and still have, a great deal of respect for them; they are the hardest working people that I’ve ever known.
My grandfather, Louis Bonner, Sr. was a fisherman, trapper, and a hunter who raised fourteen children from the land; I am very proud of this fact. My grandfather used to take my mother fishing with him in his big yawl, a large fishing boat, and when he pulled up his nets, my mother would provide commentary. For example, if she saw pickerel or white fish she would happily proclaim “money, money, money!” and if she saw suckers or mariahs, she would say “no good, no good!” Nimosôm used make as much as $10,000 in a fishing season which is a lot of money now- and it was a fortune in those days. My mom really loved her father, as did all his children and grandchildren. He was an extremely hard-working man and more humble than any other human being I have ever met in my life. I was only eight years old when he passed away from a heart attack and I remember that day like it was yesterday. I felt like my heart, too, stopped that day and the pain I felt was forever frozen in time.
My Uncle Donnie was a commercial fisherman, as were all the men in his family and extended family. Our community of South Indian Lake thrived on an economy based on commercial fishing prior to Manitoba Hydro’s Churchill River Diversion (or CRD). When I was an adolescent, my uncle ran a business called D.F. Dysart Fisheries at Sturgeon Narrows, which was very close to the Missi Falls control structure. This massive dam that was completed in 1976, the year I was born, as one part of three components that made up the Churchill River Diversion, the other two parts being the South Bay diversion channel and the Notigi control structure.
The Missi Falls control structure was an absolute monstrosity that controlled the flow of the Churchill River and the water level in South Indian Lake. When the dam was built, the entire community of South Indian Lake was flooded by three metres or just under ten feet of water, and the entire community was forced to relocate. A standard sized door in a Canadian home is six feet eight inches high. For comparison, imagine a depth of water three feet higher than that. Furthermore, can you imagine a crown corporation, in this instance, Manitoba Hydro, coming to your home today and forcing you to leave and relocate. And the travesty continues by them flooding your home, all your family’s and community members’ homes under ten feet of water.
My relatives don’t have to imagine this because they lived it in 1974 and they have been living with the fallout ever since. Five hundred people were forced to relocate, watch their homes be destroyed, and lose their traditional livelihoods in the name of “progress “due to racism and ethnocentrism. The Government of Manitoba’s attitude was that the people of South Indian Lake were Cree, and their lives did not matter. The Government of Manitoba’s attitude has not changed since; the Cree still do not matter. As First Nations people, we were considered as second-class citizens, and our lives, our land and our water were, collectively, deemed expendable.
It is important to note that, according to a study done by the Manitoba Development Authority prior to the Churchill River Diversion, the community of South Indian was self-sufficient. The average annual household income in South Indian Lake was $5,000 in the 1960s; this compared to an average household income of $500 for most other northern First Nations communities. South Indian Lake families earned ten times more than many other First Nations communities.
The travesty, moreover, was that Manitoba Hydro was warned that the community and the livelihood of the people would be destroyed. Manitoba Hydro proceeded with the Churchill River Diversion in spite of this. A 1967 report by Van Ginkel Associates assessed the inevitable damage and proposed remedial measures for the resultant damage which included economic, social, and educational programs. In addition to plans for physical development of the areas that have never been implemented, to this day.
The report bluntly stated that, "relocation would necessarily negatively disrupt" the way of life of the people of South Indian Lake and that, "… the interest of the native people of the total community will be gravely prejudiced if those resources of money and creative thought are not dedicated to solving the problem of the remote Indian settlement and the Indian reservation."
With respect to Missi Falls and the dam, when I worked for my uncle, (as three of my six brothers also did), I worked as a clerk in his store at Missi Falls/Sturgeon Narrows, where the fishermen would come to get their supplies and their groceries. My brothers would pack fifty-pound tubs of fish with ice each day to be exported for sale. This was grueling, and excruciating work, and they would often encounter fish that had tumors because of the Churchill River Diversion’s adverse environmental impacts. To be frank, it was horrifying.
What was even more horrifying was that, along with our cousins, we would spend our evenings standing at the edge of the dam, trying in vain to save as many fish as we could by fishing them out with our fishing rods and throwing them onto the opposite side of the dam. We would watch thousands of fish bang their heads against the massive concrete dam repeatedly until they died, leaving the rushing water a repulsive reddish-brown colour. Their instinct to return to their natural spawning ground was so strong that they would literally kill themselves trying to get through the massive concrete dam. We were just kids and we really thought we could save the fish, or at least some of them and it was heart breaking to watch them die…
All Manitoba Hydro had to do to mitigate this problem was build fish ladders; to this day they still have not done so. As a result, the Churchill River Sturgeon are endangered, and the white fish are right behind them. Importantly, South Indian Lake once boasted the third largest white fish commercial fishing industry in North American and an employment rate of 98%. Today, the fishing industry has become obsolete and many residents in South Indian Lake, Manitoba are living in abject poverty. Several people do not have running water or flush toilets; they must rely on “slop pails” and water barrels. No, this is not a third world country that I am talking about, this is Canada, and the year is 2022.
 “Cree” word for people of the four winds or people of the four directions
 “Cree” word for human beings
 “My grandfather” in the Ithiniw or Cree language
 Transition in the North – The Churchill River Diversion and the People of South Indian Lake (Report). Winnipeg: Van Ginkel Associates. May 1967.
By Angela Levasseur
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