Tataskweyak community members close highway into Manitoba Hydro’s Keeyask site to prevent COVID-19 spread

By | May 16, 2020

A group of people from Tataskweyak Cree Nation are blocking traffic on the only road into Manitoba Hydro’s Keeyask generating station construction site, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 into their community. 

The group is concerned about a scheduled shift change at the site on May 19. Hundreds of workers will be allowed to leave, and hundreds of new workers from across Canada and the United States will be coming in.

“Why take that risk of bringing in people, and then having a case?” said Nathan Neckoway, a Tataskweyak band councillor who was with the group on Saturday morning.

“We’ve seen many cases happening all throughout the province, the country, even the world. It only takes one case to spread so quickly among people.”

Although there were 190 confirmed COVID-19 cases on First Nations across Canada as of May 15 according to Indigenous Services Canada, there have been no confirmed cases on any Manitoba First Nation so far.

Keeping the coronavirus out of Tataskweyak, a First Nation just over 700 kilometres north of Winnipeg, is the goal of a community lockdown that is being enforced by blocking traffic, Neckoway said.

The group set up Friday afternoon on Provincial Road 280, and have since turned away a semi that was destined for the construction site.

Roughly 1,300 people are usually on-site at Keeyask, which Hydro temporarily scaled back in March to about 600 employees and contractors.

Although a public health order prohibits non-essential travel from southern Manitoba into the north, Manitoba Hydro says it has been approved by provincial health officials to go ahead with the shift change and has outlined a plan to make sure everyone stays safe.

A spokesperson said the Crown corporation has been isolating travelling workers for two weeks before they’re allowed to come into the community to work.

“To date, there have been no positive COVID-19 test results at Keeyask, a testament to the protocols Manitoba Hydro has had in place for almost two months,” said spokesperson Bruce Owen in an email.

Community members ‘scared’: councillor

Neckoway said people from his community, and others like York Landing and Fox Lake Cree Nation, are worried the coronavirus might make its way into their communities.

If that happens, Neckoway said “it would be tough to deal with.”  His community doesn’t have the infrastructure to isolate the infected. He said many families live in overcrowded conditions already.

Neckoway said he and Tetaskweyak Cree Nation chief Doreen Spence have been in contact with Manitoba Hydro and provincial public health officials about the situation. 

A group of people from Tataskweyak Cree Nation say they’ll keep blocking traffic into Manitoba Hydro’s Keeyask dam site until the pandemic calms down. (Submitted by Nathan Neckoway)

Manitoba Hydro said it has been in regular contact with all partner communities.

“To say they were not informed and consulted is simply not true,” said Owen in an email. “Manitoba Hydro made adjustments to the plan in May based on their input and that of public health officials.”

Neckoway said his group is getting a lot of support, and will continue to turn away traffic heading into the construction site until the pandemic calms down. It’s for the safety of his community members, he said.

“A lot of people have that kind of nervousness, and were very concerned and they were scared that a case will be here.”

Keeyask is a 695-megawatt hydroelectric generating station being developed 725 kilometres north of Winnipeg on the Nelson River, in partnership between Manitoba Hydro and four First Nations: York Factory First Nation, War Lake First Nation, Tataskweyak Cree Nation and Fox Lake Cree Nation.

It’s scheduled to be completed in 2021, with a price tag estimated at $10.5 billion.

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