Sonya Ballantyne is a Swampy Cree filmmaker based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. They are originally from the Misipawistik First Nation in central northern Manitoba.
Forty-five minutes from their home town is Easterville, where their grandma lived. Their grandma and mother did not end up in Easterville by choice; they were forced to leave their home, which was destroyed by flooding caused by Manitoba Hydro’s Grand Rapids hydroelectric dam.
This wasn’t the only time that Manitoba Hydro displaced an entire Indigenous community. In 1974, to generate electricity for the capital city of Winnipeg, the crown utility company diverted water from the Churchill River, which flooded and destroyed the land at O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation at South Indian Lake.
“Northern and rural communities experience disproportionate harm from Manitoba Hydro developments, while the majority of the energy produced goes to meet the demand of southern urban communities,” wrote the Hydro Accountability Board (HAB) in an opinion article published by the Winnipeg Free Press in mid-April. The HAB is a partnership between the Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition and Wa Ni Ska Tan Alliance of Hydro-Impacted Communities.
“Energy is also sold for profit to out-of-province customers, including ones in the United States. Meanwhile, northern communities are left with high electricity costs; many also continue to experience environmental degradation, health risks and economic loss caused by Hydro developments.”
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Below, Sonya talks about the impact that forced relocation has had on their family.
My name is Sonya Ballantyne. I go by she/her and they. I am currently in Winnipeg, Manitoba. But I’m also originally from the Misipawistik First Nation in central northern Manitoba.
Environmental racism is any effect to the environment that impacts people of colour predominantly. It’s been such a big thing in my life because of man-made structures that impacted my own people, specifically my grandparents. My mom and my grandmother were forced to move from where they grew up because of the flooding caused by a dam.
Before it was flooded, it was the biggest source of fossilized amber in the world. It was beautiful — they could have harvested all of it. And because of the dam, it’s all underwater now.
The guy who decided to put it into place had done so because he wanted it to be one of his legacies. And it was this big passion project that he wanted to do. What do men in power want? More power. And that’s what they wanted, was to create this dam that wasn’t really needed and was going to impact four different communities of Native people. But it didn’t matter because it was just Native people so they didn’t really matter.
My home community is called Grand Rapids. But because the dam is there now, there’s no rapids. There’s a lot of impact to how the land changed afterwards, as a result of the water not going where it needs to be — the impact to Lake Winnipeg, where it doesn’t have its normal source of water that it did in the past.
No matter where Native people are forced to relocate, there’s always another reason to relocate them. In the case of where I’m from, that always seemed to happen — where people had to move because the land was gonna be underwater from a dam. It’s always connected to us. There’s never a good place for us to be because there’s always going to be something to mine, or something to harness, or something to dig up, where we’re often blamed for the places where we live, even though that’s where we were put. And so it’s like, “well, if you didn’t want to travel two hours away, why did you guys live on a reserve?” I’m like, “You guys put us there.”
People think it’s just being forced from your land, but it’s the ongoing trauma of the mental health side too. A lot of people that my grandmother was contemporaries with were going to residential schools. My mom and my dad went to residential school. And we are only now breaking those cycles of trauma. I think the biggest thing is to try and curtail the need for greed, and the need for creating something just because you can — realizing that these things still have an impact. People like to act like things like that dam still don’t have an impact today, but it does. We need to involve the communities that are going to be impacted. And just being open to listening to how it’s gonna impact people is a big thing.
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