OTTAWA — The federal Liberals have approved Manitoba Hydro’s transmission line to Minnesota.
"This is a very good project and we have taken our time, an appropriate amount of time, to make sure this project can proceed in the right way," Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi told the Free Press early Friday morning.
We have worked hard to ensure our duty to consult has been fulfilled.
The Liberals have amended five of the conditions set out by the National Energy Board for the Manitoba-Minnesota Transmission Project.
First Nations and Métis leaders are analyzing those changes today, though they appear to fall short of the demands leaders have made over the past month.
The conditions will require Hydro to work with First Nations and Métis over the loss of Crown lands and wetlands, and to file regular reports to a monitoring committee on the conditions set out by the NEB and the province’s Clean Environment Commission.
Ottawa will also create a terrestrial and cultural studies initiative to support Indigenous-led studies on issues related to the project.
It has also tasked Environment Canada with monitoring fluctuating water levels in Lake of the Woods, an issue raised by northwest Ontario bands.
The $453-million transmission line would transmit some of Manitoba’s excess hydroelectricity to Minnesota by June 2020, to offset Hydro’s debt and to lower carbon emissions.
The project underwent provincial consultations and was approved by the NEB, but the federal cabinet twice extended the deadline for its decision this year, which was the final hurdle before construction.
Ottawa had cited Premier Brian Pallister’s spat with the Manitoba Metis Federation in making its second extension, a month ago.
The MMF has vowed to try stopping the project in court, after Pallister cancelled a 50-year, $67.5-million tentative deal, calling it "hush money."
The money was in exchange for the Métis not contesting the transmission project during the assessment process, which would prompt an unprecedented undertaking to determine Métis land rights.
Sohi said he wants Pallister to resolve that issue, but the NEB is focused more on issues such as hunting rights and impacts on cultural practices.
This is an issue that is not within the scope of the consultation process," Sohi said about the cancelled compensation deal. "We will continue to work with them, as we have always done.
Last month, six of First Nations near Winnipeg went public with twofold concerns with the project: its effects on cultural practices and hunting, as well as grievances over treaty land.
The "terrestrial and cultural studies initiative" Ottawa announced Friday aims to look at that first issue.
But Sohi said there is no plan to appoint a federal negotiator to deal specifically with southern Manitoba’s treaty-land issues, which was a demand some First Nations chiefs put forward.
The process of buying land to fulfil quotas outlined in the late 1800s has festered with the chiefs for decades. Some fear the amount of available land to use for cultural practices and economic development is dwindling.
Pallister had met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the Hydro line two weeks ago, warning that any delay would cost taxpayers money and harm the Crown corporation’s reputation in the United States.
Last month, the Liberals commissioned former Supreme Court judge Frank Iacobucci to advise on the project.
The government had feared approving the Hydro project, then having a last-minute court ruling that blocked construction, similar to a judge’s finding last August that halted the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
To avoid lawsuits and injunctions, Ottawa has to demonstrate the federal and provincial governments exercised their "duty to consult" by trying hard enough to get Indigenous buy-in, even if the project proceeds without First Nations and Métis support.