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SSNS Home > Check This First > News > Northern Manitoba News > Berens River News

Berens River News Stories


Berens River faces many challenges, social, political, and economic. The news summaries below, organised by topic, reflect that reality. The rationale behind their inclusion is the belief that the school and its students need to be aware of local challenges and add their voices to discussion on how best to address them. In order to contribute, however, students need to be critical thinkers, able to sift through information and make sense of it. Therefore, the following news summaries are designed to model critical thinking through analysis. Each article has been reviewed and summarised with the following questions in mind. How informative is it? Does it clarify issues? Does the writer display bias? Are any questions left unanswered? What new information is revealed? How does it add to the topic at hand? Is the reader left hanging?


The Berens River Road Blockade, February/March 2007:

When weight restrictions were imposed by the provincial government on the winter road connecting Berens River to the south, the Chief and council of Berens River First Nation protested. When those protests had no effect, they blocked the road. Apparently, this action got the attention of government officials, and an agreement was quickly reached. The incident raises some questions. Why did Berens River First Nation block the road? Did it work? Why might this action have influenced the blockade in the fall of 2007 at Wanipigow? How appropriate are road blockades to put pressure on governments? Are there other more effective methods?

  • Article Summaries :

BiPole III and Improved Transportation on the East Side:

  • Article Summaries:
  • See also these articles under Aboriginal News:
    • 1 May 2009: “All-weather road set for east side of lake”
    • 6 May 2009: “Give the east side another look”
    • 24 May 2009: "Build electric monorail on east side: Train would follow path of Hydro corridor, be financed with savings on shorter route"
    • 25 May 2009: "What's wrong with this plan"
    • 22 June 2009: "Extending hydro grid will be costly"
    • 19 September 2009: "West side hydro line corrosive: Doer's decision to block east side transmission like exposes metal infrastructure to failure"

The Berens River Road Blockade, February/March 2007

28 February 2007: “Berens River band to blockade road” [Winnipeg Free Press, A4]

Alexandra Paul wrote an article describing the background to a blockade of the winter road initiated by the Berens River Band on the morning of February 28. It was precipitated by the action of provincial civil servants, who reduced the allowed weight limit by 40% on trucks taking pulpwood south from Berens River to Tembec Industries at Pine Falls. According to Ron Weatherburn of Manitoba Highways, the weight restriction had been in place for years. However, both the band and the plant had worked together for forty years, and they claimed that it was the first time they had heard of such restrictions.[1] Both the band and the plant maintained that it was not economical to haul logs under such restrictions, and Berens River Chief George Kemp said that the only way they could get the issue resolved was to shut the road down.

We’re with the chief on this one. There are very few ways that a small community in a remote area can get the attention of civil servants living in the comforts of Winnipeg. Closing down a winter road gets everyone hollering, which stirs bureaucrats out of their inertia just long enough to resolve the issue!

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1 March 2007: “First Nation’s road blockade maintained” [Winnipeg Free Press, A5]

This was a report by Alexandra Paul highlighting negotiations to end a dispute over a blockade of the winter road by Berens River. Federal officials had organized a meeting between Chief George Kemp and provincial civil servants, and initially talks seemed to be moving ahead. The province appeared willing to provide a cash subsidy to help pay for the extra costs associated with the smaller loads the province was demanding. Later, however, the province backtracked and simply ordered Chief Kemp to remove the barriers. Needless to say, the chief walked out. He added later, “They wanted me to fold up my tent and be a good little boy. I can’t do that.”

Paul went on to discuss the implications. She noted that the winter road is the main transportation link for the delivery of supplies to several communities on the east side of Lake Winnipeg. Poplar River was particularly worried because the blockade was holding up the shipment of thousands of tons of gravel, and Chief Russell Lambert flew to Winnipeg in an effort to get the blockade lifted. Four communities in the Island Lake region were also worried. Garden Hill Chief Dino Flett noted that the road was their major supply line for gas and housing supplies, which included 1,00 tonnes of plumbing materials to hook up some 4,000 residents of Garden Hill.

Obviously, Chief Kemp’s back was to the wall, and he was taking a stand for his entire community. Although his neighbours to the north might be sympathetic to his plight, they had their own worries. What a perfect opportunity for bureaucrats to play one chief against the other. Could Chief Lambert’s trip to Winnipeg have hardened attitudes among provincial civil servants, who then attempted to bully Chief Kemp into submission?

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3 March 2007: “First Nation lifts winter-road blockade” [Winnipeg Free Press, A7 ]

On February 28, Berens River First Nation erected a blockade of the winter road to protest weight restrictions on trucks that were to haul $400,000 worth of pulpwood south to the Tembec Industries paper plant in Pine Falls. Originally, the band was allowed loads of 62,500 kilograms, but the province reduced this figure to 37,500 kilograms, a whopping 40% reduction, because the bridges on the winter road were considered too old to safely support heavier loads.[2] This meant more trips, and associated costs that the band could ill afford. Chief George Kemp decided the blockade was the only way he could get federal and provincial authorities to address the issues involved.[3]

It was a serious move, because the road serves half a dozen communities on the east side of Lake Winnipeg. Emergency meetings were held in Winnipeg at the headquarters of the Southeast Resource Development Corp., and a compromise was reached late Friday, March 2. The federal government came up with $121,000 to compensate Berens River for the additional fuel costs associated with reduced load, and Chief Kemp ordered the blockade to be removed the following day.[4]

This confrontation between a small band and provincial authorities underscores the transportation crisis along the east side of Lake Winnipeg. The winter road costs $14 million a year to construct for an increasingly shortened transport season. This year, mild weather delayed the opening of the road by a month. The province is committed to building a $400 million dollar all-season road, but it doesn't start until 2009, and the first phase will be a $4 million bridge over the Bloodvein River. Environmental assessment and opposition from pressure groups to any development on the east side of Lake Winnipeg are factors in the delay.

This story raises some questions. Why is it that people along the east side have waited so long for a cheap and reliable transportation system to their communities? Is it because they have little political clout? Or is it because they come under federal and provincial jurisdiction that promotes passing the buck as opposed to concrete solutions?

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BiPole III and a Permanent Road on the East Side

9 November 2006: “Water World: Lakeshore life no picnic at the beach for roadless First Nations” [Winnipeg Free Press, A14/15]

Gerald Flood is well informed about the transportation problems faced by the 10,000 people living in the Island Lake region. He’s been up to that country. Travel is a major concern locally. There are no all-weather roads to the outside and no roads between the four First Nations located there. “To get around, people use snowmobiles and ice roads in the winter and boats in summer.” During freeze-up and break-up, ordinary boats become useless and people often turn to helicopters, but only during the day, because after dark, “helicopters are prohibited from taking off, even in medical emergencies.” They can also use the hovercraft owned by Dwayne and Brian Chornoby. It “can fly over water – liquid or solid, but especially in between.” It got plenty of business in the fall of 2006, when a blizzard shut down the airport. Since it is “equipped with sonar that sees in the dark,” it can work when the helicopters can’t fly.  

The hovercraft “makes five, 10, 15 trips a day with fares averaging about $150 depending on how many climb aboard,” but that’s cheap when compared to the cost of a helicopter. For local people like Claude Taylor, a man Flood met on an earlier trip to Island Lake, such costs are burdensome. A diabetic who needs to have dialysis twice a week, Taylor moved back to Ste. Theresa Point, when a renal centre was established at Garden Hill, right across Island Lake from St. Theresa. When the lake is open, and he needs a boat to go across for his treatments, “it costs $50 one way, $100 for a round trip, $200 a week.”

Health care outside the community isn’t cheap either. Epstein Beardy, whom Flood met on his August trip, has a serious health issue that requires flights to Winnipeg “six or more times a year at $482 a pop – that’s $2,892 a year, not including cabs, meals and overnight accommodation.” Multiply that by the cost of transporting others among 10,000 people requiring outside medical attention, and the costs become “astronomical.”

Part of the problem is that the medical care available at Island Lake is generally “inadequate and getting worse.” This is in part due to an acute shortage of nurses, which “is brought on in large measure by the community’s roadless isolation.” While at Ste. Theresa, Flood learned that the health centre there was supposed to have six nurses and a doctor “four days a week.” Instead, they had “two [nurses] and a doctor for 1.5 days.” The backlog of patients had been as high as a hundred with about 300 open medical files.

Medical costs are not the only expenses that local residents incur because of the transportation issue. Air freight drives “the cost of living through the roof for Island Lakers, most of whom live on welfare” because jobs are few and without a road out of the region, “there is little hope of creating a local employment economy.” The winter road brings the bulk of the dry goods, construction materials, etc., into the community, but even that can be iffy. With warmer than usual temperatures in 2006, the winter road “all but failed,” and “few supplies got through.”

Flood had been to Island Lake twice previously by winter road in a journalist’s effort to “drive home the need for the construction of all weather roads to East Side communities, and to underline the Doer government’s folly in refusing to act on the best option for accomplishing it – allow Manitoba Hydro to build a corridor for a high-voltage transmission line down the East Side and require it be routed to create a path for a road to follow.”

Travelling to the region had been a real eye-opener for him. It helped him to understand “the immense costs and risks that are incurred to supply Island Lake and communities further north, costs and risks that contribute to the poverty and ill health of East Siders.” In spite of this, “All-weather roads have been talked about forever, but never get built, with the result that isolation continues to contribute to dysfunction and despair.” Without the roads, there can be no “meaningful economic development for lack of affordable means of transporting raw or finished resources – fish, timber, minerals – to the outside world.” Flood wrote that the government had been talking about building a road from Norway House to Island Lake, but studies had concluded that this wasn’t a reasonable option. It would give “access to the outside, but, by doubling the distance of a road straight south down a Hydro corridor on the East Side,” it would make “development uneconomic.” And, he added, “It also will do no good for all the communities further north that could be linked to the Hydro corridor.”

From Flood’s perspective, a road would end Island Lake’s isolation and provide “a cheap transportation alternative to air.” Moreover, “it would have other positive health related impacts in that it would make a healthy diet affordable and thus reduce the need for health care and medicines.”

Flood covered a lot of ground. Eric Robinson said the people on the East Side were opposed to a Hydro line. On the basis of Flood’s article, what arguments might Elijah Harper and others at Island Lake make in support of a Hydro line and the road that would naturally follow? Why is the alternative road to Norway House proposed by the government uneconomical?

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18 August 2007: “Honour Adam Keeper” [Winnipeg Free Press, A16]

In a powerful and eloquent letter, Chief George Kemp, Berens River First Nation, reacted to the tragic death of Adam Keeper of Pauingassi. In Chief Kemp’s view, deaths like Adam’s were the result of “isolation, boredom and lack of hope,” which would continue to kill the people on the east side of Lake Winnipeg “for the foreseeable future.” People saw few prospects for change, a situation that had only become worse “since the collapse of the fur industry in the early 1970s, thanks to the environmentalists and the start of their anti-fur movement.” The environmentalists now had a new cause, namely, “saving the boreal forest on the east side of Lake Winnipeg,” a cause that, in Chief Kemp’s view, meant “isolating our whole region from any future development.”

Chief Kemp was of course referring to the environmental lobby that is working hard to prevent Manitoba Hydro from building a line up the east side of Manitoba, a project that would guarantee an all weather road to the region. As elder Alvin Disbrowe of Berens River pointed out, that road has been in the “study” stage since 1926. We all know that government bureaucracy is ploddingly slow, but 81 years is a lifetime. Chief Berens had every reason to be frustrated. Berens River and the communities along the east side of Lake Manitoba need a road to connect them to the economic opportunities that other Canadians take for granted. For additional information on the need for a road see Gerald Flood "WaterWorld: Lakeshore life no picnic at the beach for roadless First Nation." Had the environmental movement been as strong in the 1880s as it is today in Canada, and the politicians as short-sighted, the railways would never have been built to Western Canada. Unfortunately, the provincial government seems to be at the beck and call of environmental extremists, who demonstrate no sensitivity whatsoever to the needs of people, whose lives they want to control. Chief Berens suggested that a road be announced immediately for the east side of Lake Winnipeg. What better memorial could we have for little Adam Keeper than a road that provides hope for the future of our children?

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16 October 2007: “Chief vows to ‘trip up’ UNESCO bid” [Winnipeg Free Press, A5]

Mary Agnes Welch reported on Berens River Chief Kemp’s determination to stop the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is proposed for the east side, based in part on the claim that a “significant chunk of land claimed by the Poplar River First Nation is in fact traditional Berens River land.” Chief Kemp had been at odds for some time with Poplar River First Nation, which favours the UNESCO designation and opposes the power line that Berens River First Nation supports.

Ray Rabliaukas, Poplar River’s land management co-ordinator, said that “the band had tried to be sensitive to the traditional lands of its neighbour when drawing up the proposed boundaries of the UNESCO site,” basing its map on the band’s’ traplines and the advice of its elders. Conservation Minister Stan Struthers did not dispute Berens River’s right to object to the resulting map, but hoped that the parties could work it out “either through the east side planning initiative” that involves all 16 east side bands or “directly with the three First Nations (Poplar River, Little Grand Rapids, and Pauingassi) that back the UNESCO bid.

Chief Kemp believed that that the UNESCO designation would scuttle the construction of the Hydro power line and the all-weather road that would accompany it, thereby stopping “development on the east side” for years to come, a fear that the government confirmed last month, when it “announced it was building a new line on the west side of the province, in part to preserve the integrity of the boreal forest on the east.” Kemp was unconvinced by the government claim that ecotourism would develop after a UNESCO designation. As proof, he pointed to Atikaki Provincial Park, a protected area on the east side for years that has brought few hikers or paddlers to the region. From Chief Kemp’s perspective, the government proposal was “a complete disaster for the east side.”  

This is a new twist to the struggle on the east side. Before the province can make a proposal to UNESCO to designate a heritage park for the east side, land use plans must be in place. In view of Kemp’s determination to challenge the existing boundaries of the proposed park, how long do you think that process might take? What impact could this and other potential disputes have on economic development by any means? Who is responsible for this turn of events? The First Nations or the Government? Keep reading, to see if a pattern is beginning to emerge!

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16 October 2007: “In defence of Chief Bushie and his blockade" [Winnipeg Free Press, A11]

By way of clarification, Berens River Chief George Kemp wrote that the Wabanong Nakaygum Okimawin (WNO) Accord was “first drafted to be a legal document,” but Manitoba Conservation “pulled out of this process” and the result was a “political” accord that was “nothing more than a glorified memorandum of understanding.” Even though it had “no legal teeth,” it was intended as “a protocol” for settling land use issues on the east side.

The WNO Accord was signed in March 2007, and “the Minister of Conservation was supposed to put “all new initiatives through the WNO for approval before proceeding.” Chief Kemp argued that the new cottage lot draws were supposed to be handled in this way, but the province did not do it, so Hollow Water was understandably upset. The WNO protocol was also not followed in the case of the World Heritage Park proposal. In this case, Manitoba Conservation was going to submit the proposal to the United Nations, even though it included traditional lands of Berens River and Bloodvein, First Nations that were opposed to the designation. Kemp promised that they will fight the proposal.

Kemp next turned to the Consultation on Sustainable Development Implementation for Manitoba (COSDI). This document states that a “wide area land use plan” needs to be done “before any new major development projects are undertaken in the province.” This is being applied to the east side, but Kemp asked why it was not being applied “for the recent and future Hydro developments in the north, and now, the west side Bi-pole line.” He noted that the Promises to Keep document contained seven recommendations that spoke to the “east side First Nations wanting the transmission line project based on revenue sharing and other benefits.” In Kemp’s view, the government has not honoured the recommendations of the WNO and COSDI, but has reacted instead to “fear mongering by U.S. environmentalists” like Robert Kennedy Jr. The only alternative for east side First Nations wanting a say under COSDI or the WNO was the road blockade.

Did this article shed any light on the blockade at Wanipigow? According to Chief Kemp the government had violated the spirit of both the WNO and the COSDI. What evidence did he cite and how strong was it? What could the government argue in its defence? Do you feel more or less sympathetic with Chief Bushie of Wanipigow, after reading Kemp’s viewpoint?

On the issue of land claims concerning traditional lands, Kemp argued that “Berens River First Nation owns the traditional lands all the way from Wrong Lake on the Poplar River to Charron Lake where the Manitoba boundary makes a sharp turn to the northeast.” Is it a fact that Berens River “owns” this land, or is it a claim that may need to be resolved in a court of law? Remember, as a critical reader, you need to separate fact from fiction on all sides.

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18 October 2007: “Mr. Premier, let’s talk” [Winnipeg Free Press, A15]

George Kemp praised the Island Lake Tribal Council for coming out in favour of the east side line route and concluded that “it demonstrated that “the decision by Premier Doer points more and more to a personal vision for the east side” than it does for the wishes of the people living there. Kemp found it troubling that the premier refused “to recognize the authority of the east side chiefs as representing the majority voice for their communities and region.” For additional information, see Eastern Manitoba: Traditional Lands and Economic Development."

Kemp revealed that the east side chiefs, including Ian Bushie, had requested a meeting with Premier Doer, but he had refused. Moreover, the Manitoba Highways Department had also refused to meet with them concerning winter road construction, “citing the Hollow Water blockade as the reason.”

Kemp argued that the only bands that needed to agree on power line proposal were the nine bands, whose traditional lands would be directly affected by the line. He pointed out that Poplar River First Nation, which was opposed to the power line, was not one of those bands.

Kemp also challenged the government to follow the precedent of Wuskwatim and Conawapa regarding “sharing revenue and ownership” on the east side. The alternative was “continued poverty and isolation and billions lost for all Manitobans,” if the west side option stood.

A legitimate question for the government based on this report might be: If there can be “shared revenue and ownership” for the Wuskwatim and Conawapa Projects, why does the precedent not apply on the east side?

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16 November 2010: “Chiefs push for road in north” [Helen Fallding, Winnipeg Free Press, A3]

Journalist Helen Fallding, who had been publicizing the acute problems caused by the lack of running water in the Island Lake District of North-eastern Manitoba, next turned her attention to a lobbying effort by local leaders. Chiefs from Wasagamack, St. Theresa Point, Garden Hill, and Red Sucker Lake flew to Winnipeg in November 2010 for a news conference at the Island Lake Tribal Council office. They wanted to speed up construction of a $1.4-billion all-weather road from Norway House to Island Lake, so that they could get running water in the community. “All plumbing and construction supplies now have to be brought in via an ice road that was open for less than four weeks this year.”

Grand Chief Ron Evans, also at the news conference, said that the province told them it would take thirty years to build the road. However, he estimated that it would take “less than ten years,” if there were federal money provided. So far, none has been promised.

Ten years was a long time to wait for communities that already had a water crisis like the one in Island Lake. Cheaper transportation would lower the cost of bringing in plumbing and construction materials that came in during 2010 on a winter road that was only open for a few weeks.

Indian Affairs should have taken the lead regarding such matters. Instead, it passed on a Free Press inquiry about the road to Infrastructure Canada. This latter government department replied that it had not received “a formal request from the Manitoba government for funding for new all-weather roads for the Island Lake region,” although it promised that such a request would be “examined in the context of available funding.”

NDP MP Niki Ashton, who represented Northern Manitoba in the federal House of Commons, “raised the issue of roads to northeastern Manitoba numerous times” in the House. She questioned the federal government’s annual expenditure “on ice-road maintenance, flying in emergency supplies and medivacs,” rather than making a “long-term commitment to an all-weather road.”

Discussion: At one point in her article, Helen Fallding mentioned that the East Side Road Authority had a week earlier [9 November 2010] made a news release about the “east-west route” from Norway House to the Island Lake District.

Right after making that statement, Fallding added that “A previous proposal for a road all the way up the east side of Lake Winnipeg was rejected because it would have been 168 kilometres longer.” In fact, the “east side/west side” debate over the location of BiPole III had clearly established that the east side route was shorter than the west side route.

So what does the report really say? Here is a direct quotation from the news release.

The SNC review ruled out a north-south link between St. Theresa Point through Berens River First Nation to PR 304 because this route would have been approximately 168 kms longer than an east-west link to PR 375 (the nearest provincial road). A north-south link would also cross environmentally sensitive terrain that would also be difficult for all-season road construction.

Of course, the east-west route touted by the East Side Road Authority is going to be “shorter”, because it only goes to Norway House! The calculation (see map of route on page 4 of the news release) is based on the distance to PR 357 “the nearest provincial road”, which is at Norway House! It is still 810 km by road from Norway House to Winnipeg, the main distribution centre of Manitoba.

The route down the east side to PR 304 is naturally longer than the distance to Norway House, but the junction of PR 304 and the route north to Berens River is only 200 km away from Winnipeg.

See why it is wise to check the fine print? The news release was disingenuous at best, but Fallding apparently fell for it. The East Side Road Authority is an arm of the Manitoba government and as such supports the longer west-side route for BiPole III. Do you suppose that could explain why there is this reference to a “shorter” east-west route? You be the judge!

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18 November 2010: “Bad decision mirrored” [Chief George Kemp of Berens River, Winnipeg Free Press, A15]

The response to Helen Fallding’s article was not long in coming. In his letter to the Winnipeg Free Press, Chief George Kemp of Berens River First Nation stated,

The key to development for remote communities on the east side of Lake Winnipeg was lost when the decision was made to route the Bipole III line on the west side.

If Manitoba Hydro had decided to build the line down the east side, the cost savings in construction and power evaporation from the lines could have paid for an east side road. And these savings over the years could have paid for sewer and water development and other infrastructure needs. Now our communities are left to cry out for government help for many years to come.

Chief Kemp corrected the impression left by Helen Falldring that the east-side route was “longer.”

The decision to build a road from Island Lake to Norway House mirrors the west side line decision – it’s the long way around to Winnipeg. A good road down the east side from Island Lake would provide the quickest route to Winnipeg. It would be only a 5.5-hour drive instead of 15 hours through Norway House.

Chief Kemp concluded his letter in this way.

I may be a lone wolf on this east side issue, but I believe we are witnessing one of the biggest mistakes in this province’s history. All Manitobans will pay for it for many years to come, especially our people on the east side of Lake Winnipeg.

Discussion: Chief Kemp set the record straight. The north-south route down the east side of Lake Winnipeg is the shorter and more economical route. Fallding’s article gave the impression that it was otherwise, based on a superficial reading of the news release by the East Side Road Authority.

Is Chief Kemp a lone wolf on this issue? And, is he right in concluding that the abandonment of the east side option for BiPole III will be so damaging?

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Click on the footnote number to return to the text:

[1] Considering the load reduction per truck was 40%, or 62,550 to 37,500 kilograms, one wonders how this could have been in place for years and nobody noticed it!

[2] Why would the province be concerned about safety on roads for which it was responsible? In your view, is this a good reason for introducing restrictions.

[3] Why is it difficult for civic leaders in small communities to get the attention of government? How is it complicated, when there is not one, but two governments involved?

[4] How does the old saying, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” apply here? What are the pros and cons of this particular tactic?


Last updated: March 16, 2011


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