Turbulent times for the province’s hydroelectricity entity only became more electric in 2018.
From resignations to lawsuits to raised rates, Manitoba Hydro was front and centre on many news days.
As we look back at the year that was, we take a look at the major headlines that centered on the Crown corp and look ahead to what might happen in the coming year.
It was March 21 when nine out of the 10 Hydro board members resigned en masse.
The only member left standing was PC MLA Cliff Graydon, the only member of Premier Brian Pallister’s government on the board.
Pallister claimed that the defection occurred after he levied a decision not to pay the Manitoba Metis Federation $67 million over the next 50 years, something he labelled as “persuasion money.”
The Metis claim that the money is compensation for land for projects such as Bipole III and Manitoba-Minnesota transmission lines.
“Can we stand back, watch Hydro make this kind of payment when we know that it’s going to have ramifications of tens, hundreds of millions of dollars on other things we’re trying to do? And we felt that wasn’t right,” said Pallister at the time. “The whole province is impacted when you start making payments to special interest groups.”
Pallister’s narrative was in stark contrast to that of the board. In a statement, outgoing board chair Sanford Riley said Dave Brown, Earl Edmondson, Steve Kroft, Jennefer Nepinak, Michael Pyle, Allen Snyder, Dayna Spiring and Dr. Annette Trimbee all chose to join him to quit their Hydro board posts, effective immediately.
“For over a year, we have attempted to meet with the premier to resolve a number of critical issues related to the finances and governance of Manitoba Hydro, including matters related to Hydro’s efforts to further develop its relationship with Indigenous peoples,” Riley wrote. “Despite repeated attempts, we have not been able to have a meaningful dialogue with the government and we have reached an impasse.”
Government said while past deals between Hydro and other communities were linked to the impact they had on land, this one the MMF was effectively a payment so the MMF wouldn’t oppose specific hydro developments.
The MMF filed two against the province, first launching their legal challenge against the province regarding the $67.5-million payment that the province backed out.
The first judicial review aimed to force government to reverse its decision to quash the Hydro payment to MMF, one the MMF claims was determined through a legally binding agreement and meant to compensate for lost land access due to Hydro projects. The federation says that construction would interfere with Metis harvesting, fishing and hunting rights on traditional lands.
The second, which Chartrand announced not long after the papers were filed for the first, centred around the Manitoba-Minnesota transmission lines and an alleged breach of contract.
“We need to look at every avenue we can … to make sure that people will learn the truth once we flesh it out,” said Chartrand at the time.
At the end of 2017, Hydro asked the Public Utilities Board to levy a 7.9% rate hike on ratepayers in 2018 and in 2019 citing, once again, the rising debt from both the Keeyask Generating Station and Bipole III transmission line.
The lofty ask was shot down in early May, but the PUB did allow rates to increase by 3.6% effective June 1. The PUB had concerns in its decision, specifically revolving around affordability for Hydro customers. One of the recommendations asked the province to look at developing a program that would assist lower-income customers. Another recommendation asked government to find a way to set aside a portion of the revenue from the Keeyask generating station so it could be funnelled into the program to help those low-income folks.
PUB also told the province that First Nations residents in the new customer category would not be subject to the rate hike.
Earlier this month, Hydro said it is seeking a 3.5% increase in 2019, down from the 7.9% it had wanted.
“The NDP left us with an insurmountable problem,” said Crown Services Minister Colleen Mayer. “We’re trying to fix that. And the only way we are going to fix that is if we keep talking to ratepayers, working with stakeholders and fix the problem left by the former government.”
Allegations of racism, abuse
In August, an 86-page report from the province’s arm’s-length Clean Environment Commission showed accusations of racism, and sexual abuse toward Indigenous women, many from the Gillam and Fox Lake Cree Nation area during a period from the 1950s to 1980s.
“I’ve seen men — Fox Lake band members — young men my age that I used to hang around with, my brothers-in-law later on, get beaten up. I seen women raped,” Franklin Arthurson told a hearing in January, according to Clean Environment Commission transcripts.
“I seen a woman getting raped and I couldn’t do a damn thing. And all they did was laugh, like it was nothing, it was no big deal,” Marie Henderson told the same hearing.
Both the province and Hydro said they took the allegations very seriously. Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires said government had turned over the matter to the RCMP.
The NDP claimed that Pallister is angling that way back in November with the hiring of Jay Grewal as the new president and CEO of the Crown corp.
NDP leader Wab Kinew cited Grewal’s time with B.C. Hydro when they moved to privatization.
“In the last two years, Pallister has set the stage for privatization by throwing Hydro into chaos and putting billion-dollar projects at risk,” Kinew said. “He ignored the former Board for so long they were forced to resign in protest. Now, the Premier has hired a privatization hit team to carry out his dirty work.”
In December, Kinew said a request for proposal to hire a consulting firm to analyze Hydro’s organizational alignment was a further step in privatization.
The Pallister government has denied it, with Pallister himself calling the idea a “stretch.”
Hydro, too, denies it.
“This has nothing to do with privatization,” said Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen. “To stress, this review is not driven by government — we will look at any measure that improves customer service as that’s what our customers expect and deserve.”
— with files from The Canadian Press