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Manitoba History: Review: James Waldram, As Long as the Rivers Run: Hydroelectric Development and Native Communities in Western Canada

by Robert Robson
University of Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 19, Spring 1990

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to

James Waldram, As Long as the Rivers Run: Hydroelectric Development and Native Communities in Western Canada, Winnipeg: The University of Manitoba Press, 1988, 253 pp., xviii, maps. ISBN 0-88755-143-2.

A timely contribution to the hydro development debate, James Waldram’s As Long as the Rivers Run provides a detailed account of the treaty-like negotiations that accompanied the Squaw Rapids, Grand Rapids and Churchill River Diversion hydro projects. Focusing on the notion of development for the “common good,” Waldram aptly demonstrates that the transactions were very much in the style of the treaty land grab of the nineteenth century. Rife with deceit, contradiction and wrong-doing, the so-called hydro negotiations, like the treaty negotiations, have forced the native population to accept a government contrived settlement package. To the credit of the native community, however, the affected population has yet to fully acquiesce under the hydro program. Reacting to the problems of flooding, dam building and river diversion, the native community still toils with the issues of relocation, compensation, retraining and the general socio-economic upheaval that has surrounded hydro development.

In documenting the hydro related experiences of Cumberland House, Saskatchewan, Chemawawin- Easterville, Manitoba, and South Indian Lake, Manitoba, Waldram offers not only a reasonable overview of the “politics of hydroelectric dam construction” but also an interesting comparative perspective on the hydro issue. Cumberland House, located in the Saskatchewan River Delta area of northeastern Saskatchewan, was the first of the three communities to be effected by hydro expansion. Foreshadowing much of what was to come, the Squaw Rapids Dam, which was operational by 1962, lowered water levels and thereby shattered the local economy, disrupted the region’s ecological balance and generally wreaked havoc with the community’s traditional way of life. Even more unsettling was the impact of the Grand Rapids Dam on the community of Chemawawin. Located on the banks of the Saskatchewan River at the point where it entered Cedar Lake, the site of the community was inundated by the rising waters of Cedar Lake. Forced to relocate to the new community of Easterville, the local population was completely uprooted by the hydro scheme. South Indian Lake, situated in the Footprint Lake area of northeastern Manitoba, has a slightly more contemporary association with hydro development. Indeed, although “compensation agreements” were signed in 1985, the people of South Indian have recently begun a new round of negotiations. The Churchill River Diversion project which not only drastically raised the level of South Indian Lake but also dramatically affected the community of South Indian Lake’s traditional way of life is very much front and centre in the hydro negotiations. South Indian Lake is something of a turning point in the hydro negotiation process. By the mid to late 1960s, public opinion had rallied against the disruptive nature of the hydro project and although the diversion scheme was carried through to completion, the negotiations show that hydro at all costs was no longer the order of the day.

Much of the value of As Long as the Rivers Run is in its comparative overview of the hydro phenomenon. Unfortunately, however, Waldram’s interpretation does not do justice to the topic. The book clearly lacks a conceptual framework and although the author establishes the treaty-hydro perspective as the central theme of the study, it too is often piecemeal and ill-defined. Certainly, the parallels developed by the author are well worth pursuing and warrant discussion but they do so in conjunction with the larger issues of hydroelectric power development. Waldram’s case study approach to the topic leaves many of the fundamental hydro questions unanswered. Issues such as the role of government, the core-periphery nature of the process and even questions of underdevelopment and/or dependency are all pertinent to the subject matter and beg some consideration. Perhaps most important in this regard is the modernization debate. The federal as well as many of the provincial governments rationalized their post-World War II dealings with the native population in terms of a perceived need to modernize the native community. While Waldram appears to recognize the significance of the modernization initiative, he fails to adequately assess its impact on the three communities under study. The government-held belief that through community planning, house building and utility servicing, it was improving the quality of life within the native community runs throughout Waldram’s study. What is missing is the analysis of the end product. In other words, did the modern housing or electrical service as provided through the various hydro schemes, compensate for the dislocation encountered by the native community? While the modernization thrust did on occasion improve the physical appearance of the native community, it often did so to the detriment of native culture, tradition and way of life.

The constitutional debate is also crucial to the discussion of the hydro negotiations and one that requires more serious consideration. The mixed and often ambiguous authority exercised by the federal and provincial governments have clearly compounded the hydro conundrum. Many of the negotiating problems encountered by the native population were directly related to the seemingly reticent attitude of the senior levels of government in accepting responsibility for hydro dislocation. Although Waldram recognizes this, had his discussion attempted to relate the hydro negotiations to the larger questions of self-government, constitutional recognition and/or even re-instatement, a clearer understanding of prevailing attitudes would have been ascertained. Native self-determination extends well beyond the hydro negotiations.

The community end of the discussion is also woefully lacking. It would have been appropriate to have included more community related information. This is particularly true of pre- and post-hydro development. It would have been useful, for example, to have measured the infrastructure of Chemawawin against that of Easterville to deter-mine what type of advances had been made and what type of issues were evolving.

A final point worth making concerns illustrations. The author has included three maps; only one of which directly relates to the issue of hydro negotiations. Even this map, however, has serious shortcomings. Although Cumberland House, Chemawawin-Easterville and South Indian Lake are noted, the location of the NFC communities are not indicated nor is there any evidence provided of the northern community network. Beyond Prince Albert, The Pas and Thompson, there appear to be no northern communities in either Saskatchewan or Manitoba. It would have been useful to show the location of Cross Lake, Norway House, Nelson House, York Landing, and Split Lake if not, Lynn Lake, Leaf Rapids and/or Uranium City.

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