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Case study: working with indigenous communities at Keeyask

In 2013, a proposed new generating station at Keeyask became the first project in Canada to apply the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol – a framework for assessing projects against a range of social, environmental, technical and economic considerations. Keeyask scored highly across the board and is particularly notable for its partnership with the local indigenous Cree Nations. Dave Bowen, Keeyask Project Manager at Manitoba Hydro, writes about the project.

Keeyask project siteThe site for the Keeyask generating station is located on the Nelson River in Manitoba, Canada, around 60 km downstream from Split Lake, and 725 km north-east of Winnipeg. The station will have a capacity of 695 MW and produce an average of 1,400 GWh of electricity each year. It has a first unit in-service date of 2019. 

Regulatory approvals for the project were received in July 2014, and construction started almost immediately. 

Partnership with Cree Nations

The Keeyask Project is being developed in partnership with four local Aboriginal Cree Nations, all of whom have been affected by past hydroelectric developments. The largest of these is the Tataskweyak Cree Nation, who are resident at Split Lake; the project is being developed here, within the Split Late Resource Management Area.

All of these communities have been intensely involved in the development and planning of the project and have actually shaped its design. For example, one of the original designs was for a high head plant, but that option would have created a lot more flooding than a lower head version, which was the Cree’s preference. A decision was made that the project was still economically viable with a lower head design and this is how it proceeded.  

When we filed the environment impact statement for the project, it was based on western science and criteria prescribed in federal and provincial environmental regulation, as well as environmental evaluations carried out by each of the Cree Nations using Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge. This input was invaluable to the assessment because these communities have lived in this area since time immemorial and have intricate and historical knowledge of the landscape.

How the Cree Nations will benefit

The terms of our partnership with the Cree Nations are set out in the Joint Keeyask Development Agreement, which also features four ‘pillars’ identifying how these communities will benefit from the project.

To date, contracts awarded to these four partner Cree Nations for both work completed and in progress totals almost CAD$350m"

The first is income and governance. The Cree Nations have the opportunity to buy shares in up to 25 per cent of the project using money primarily borrowed from Manitoba Hydro. These loans are paid back over time out of the revenue stream from the project. The Cree Nations will also participate in the governance of the project and are represented on its board of directors and several project advisory committees.

Secondly, for employment, measures are in place to remove as many barriers as possible for Aboriginal people to work on the project. This includes providing qualified Aboriginal people first access to jobs, free transport from communities to the project site, and cultural awareness programs and counselling services for all project employees that are run by the partner communities. 

Then there is training. We set up a CAD$60m pre-project training initiative that ran for almost ten years to prepare people for jobs on the project. Now that the project is in the construction phase, we are working with contractors to maximise the number of on-the-job training opportunities.

The final component is business opportunities. When we structured the project, we worked directly with the partner Cree Nations to identify their business skills and to then shape a series of directly negotiated contracts to match these skills. Examples include road building, security, catering and camp maintenance contracts. To date, contracts awarded to these four partner Cree Nations for both work completed and in progress totals almost CAD$350m. 

The impact of the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol

We found the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol to be an extremely worthwhile process, and the assessors we worked with were thorough, detailed and professional.

This early-stage involvement wasn’t just window dressing – it was properly funded to enable the communities to fully participate and add value."

The assessment helped to identify areas where there was extra work needed, or that we should approach differently. From a project perspective it forced us to answer tough questions and make sure that we have the correct systems in place across the board.

We scored international best practice level on a number of topics covered by the protocol, and notably all of those connected to community – indigenous peoples, cultural heritage, project benefits, and communities and livelihoods. It helped that we have long-standing relationships with the Aboriginal communities along our affected waterways, and a corporate culture to work hard and strengthen them on an ongoing basis.

These pre-existing relationships meant that we started working with our partners at the very beginning of the project, so they felt involved and had a key voice in its development. This early-stage involvement wasn’t just window dressing – it was properly funded to enable the communities to fully participate and add value.

Now that the Project is under construction, these relationships continue with community participation occurring through the project’s corporate governance structure and environmental monitoring programs based on both Western science and Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge. 

You can find out more about the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol and download the full assessment of the Keeyask project at