Cumberland House Cree Nation calls on premier to meet over water supply

Cumberland House Cree Nation Chief Rene Chaboyer said a SaskPower dam has "choked" the water supply to his community and killed off wildlife in the Saskatchewan River Delta

Cumberland House Cree Nation (CHCN) Chief Rene Chaboyer is calling for Indigenous sovereignty over a SaskPower dam on the First Nation’s traditional territory of the Saskatchewan River Delta.

Chaboyer said SaskPower’s E.B Campbell hydroelectric dam near Carrot River is impacting the environment and his people’s way of life.

“I told SaskPower at one point that the Cumberland Cree Nation will eventually own and operate that dam,” Chaboyer said in June. “That’s what I’m working toward.”

Now Chaboyer is calling on Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe to accept an invitation to meet and find solutions to a water access crisis in his community.

Pointing to design flaws in the structure he said the dam has choked the water supply to his community and killed off wildlife in the delta.

“It holds back a lot of sediment that is required for the delta to survive, meaning it’s almost like vitamins are being held back,” Chaboyer said.

“The sediment feeds all the plants, the birds and animals. Our people utilize the delta upstream from the dam which provides the food for us, our way of life and our medicine.”

The chief said he has asked for meetings with the Saskatchewan government to discuss solutions but the province hasn’t been forthcoming.

“I want the province to come to the table and have some meaningful consultation with us. We have requested them over and over again,” Chaboyer said.

“I ask Scott Moe to come to the table… Come speak with us. This isn’t a joke anymore.”

A spokesperson for the province deferred to SaskPower as “the lead” in regard to the dam.

SaskPower spokesperson Joel Cherry said the Saskatchewan Crown Corporation is having “numerous ongoing and recent discussions” with residents of the Saskatchewan River delta.

Cherry pointed to an “ongoing relationship” with the Saskatchewan River Sturgeon Management Board —  where the SaskPower helps fund research on local fish populations.

“Data collected by fishermen helps monitor the adult and juvenile lake sturgeon population,” Cherry said. “Information currently indicates a positive trend in the Lake Sturgeon population.”

He said SaskPower is participating in the “Delta Dialogue,” a forum facilitated by the University of Saskatchewan to share knowledge and listen to environmental concerns expressed by residents.

In 2020, SaskPower installed a new water gauge to better understand how the E.B. Campbell Dam affects the volume and timing of water flow into the Cumberland Marshes.

“SaskPower has responded to Cumberland House’s concerns regarding large woody debris blocking numerous side channels to the Saskatchewan River and has funded debris clearing work in 2020 and again in 2021,” Cherry said.

“Removal of the woody debris is done by Cumberland Delta residents, and has the positive benefit of restoring boat passage down these side-channels, as well as enabling fish passage into the channel to open significant areas of fish habitat.”

A Water Power Licence stipulates operating conditions that SaskPower must follow to operate the dam.

“Many of these (conditions) were carried forward from the previous license but additional accommodations were made to address some concerns expressed during the provincial consultation process,” Cherry said.

Cherry said that E.B. Campbell has a “limited ability” to regulate the volume of water that flows downstream on its own because of other dams that are operating upstream.

Those other dams also result in higher water flows during the winter months and lower flows in the spring and summer.

He said the “importance and role of floods” on the health of the Delta needs to be considered along with the protection of downstream residents and critical infrastructure.

SaskPower said there have been no discussions with CHCN so far regarding ownership of E.B. Campbell.

“The station is currently undergoing a multi-year comprehensive refurbishment that will give the plant at least 50 more years of renewable power generation,” Cherry said.

“E.B. Campbell functions as part of a larger water management system, including numerous upstream reservoirs and competing water demands such as residential and agricultural irrigation.”

Concerned that discussions with SaskPower aren’t getting anywhere Chaboyer wants direct consultations with the province to solve the problem of water access and address Indigenous sovereignty in the area.

“At the end of the day they still hold back and choke out as much water as they can. Stopping it from flowing to us,” Chaboyer said.

“It affects us greatly because it’s expediting detrimental damages to our way of life. We have to find a way to get a better flow of water to our delta. One of the biggest things on our agenda is to try to revitalize and restore our cultural treaty area.”

He said the $4-billion provincially funded irrigation project at Lake Diefenbaker also needs to be discussed. 

“It would affect us. Even more so than how we are being affected right now,” Chaboyer said. “We must find a happy medium so that we can all benefit from water use.”

Chaboyer wants the Saskatchewan government to ensure stable water access to his First Nation the same way that it does for communities in southern parts of the province.

“I know down south there’s a water allocation set for communities, so they’re guaranteed to get the next month of water,” Chaboyer said. “Once the water starts flowing up north there’s no set allocation for us.”