Conawapa drums beat
Winnipeg Free Press
CONAWAPA, Conawapa, Conawapa. You can't help but hear
the rhythm in that word. Like a drum beat, the name of
Conawapa, a Blackfoot Indian who guided Anthony Henday
up the Nelson River and across the Prairies to "discover"
the Rocky Mountains, has sounded in Manitoba for decades.
Premier Gary Doer was a junior cabinet minister when he
first heard the drum beat, and he hears it still. Former
premier Gary Filmon certainly heard it the day that he
and then Ontario premier David Peterson signed a deal
in 1989 to have the power dam built at a cost of $5.5
billion. No doubt Mr. Filmon imagined then that by now
Conawapa would be a huge success and legacy item. But
that deal signed Dec. 7, 1989, collapsed with Ontario
paying $150-million compensation for Manitoba's costs.
But the Conawapa drum beats still, apparently more loudly.
Premier Doer and beleaguered Ontario Premier Ernie Eves
were beating it on Friday at Kakabeka Falls, that lovely
spot west of Thunder Bay, making it evident that they
had at least put a lot of thought into the selection of
a site to sign an agreement to look once more at building
a $1-billion hydro line to carry Conawapa power to Toronto.
Mr. Eves seemed confident that this time the project would
be a go. But that will not likely occur until after he
faces an election, which he is likely to lose.
Mr. Doer, as we know, wants to build, build, build hydro
dams up north to help save the planet from greenhouse
gases and to create short-term jobs and economic activity.
He seemed so confident that this is the right thing to
do that he complained that Ottawa should speed up the
environmental approval process. Mr. Doer already has shown
some disregard for these processes by deciding that the
Clean Environment Commission should do approval work in
Manitoba, rather than the Public Utilities Board, which
has the actual expertise needed.
It would appear that Prime Minister Jean Chretien is onside
-- Ottawa is contributing $300,000 to the $2 million study
launched Friday. Both Mr. Doer and Mr. Eves hope that
Ottawa contributes significantly more, perhaps bankrolling
the $1 billion line. But no matter Mr. Chretien's enthusiasm,
the fact is that he will be comfortably retired before
even the preliminary studies are completed.
Hydro CEO Bob Brennan was all for building a $1-billion
transmission line from the North through pristine eastern
Manitoba within three years. This $1-billion line, you
understand, is in addition to the other $1 billion line
through Northwestern Ontario. Mr. Brennan is a trusted
and proven leader at Manitoba Hydro, but there have been
no mega-projects done on his watch. The chance to end
that long dearth of hydro mega-projects echoes in the
throb Conawapa, Conawapa, Conawapa.
Two fundamental issues go unheard over the din of the
drumbeat. The first is the time frame. Conawapa could
be built in eight years, at greater cost, or in 12 years
at lesser cost. Either way, that's a long time from now.
Ontario desperately needs electricity now. It will not
wait eight years to get at least some of that electricity.
If Ontarians are willing to pay a lot for electricity
today, what will they pay in eight or 12 years? The Ontario
market is at least partially deregulated, which means
that only a fool would pay a premium today for electricity
in eight or 12 years. A deal can be struck. But what we
need to know is not whether building Conawapa will create
an economic party in Manitoba, but whether Manitobans
will suffer a hangover as a result.
The other issues is: Why Conawapa? Is it the incessant
beat that drives Conawapa to the exclusion of better options?
One simple option was touched on at Kakabeka Falls. To
prevent brownouts in energy-starved Ontario, the Eves
government has been required to issue edicts to Ontarians
to turn off unnecessary appliances. It makes people mad.
But more mad is the reluctance to enforce conservation
as the answer to electricity shortage, as opposed to building
Conawapa to guarantee the freedom to waste.
Another option would be to turn off the Conawapa drumbeat
and examine alternatives. The Ontario electricity market
follows the lay of the land. East of Wawa, electricity
flows east to Toronto, which also draws electricity west
from Quebec. West of Wawa, electricity flows west to Manitoba
or east to Wawa. In other words, Manitoba's natural market
in Ontario is between Winnipeg and Wawa. In that region
are two terrible polluters, coal plants in Atikokan and
Thunder Bay which together generate about 450 kilowatts.
Manitoba could serve that market more easily, more economically,
more sustainably, and with less risk than by seeking to
keep the lights on in Toronto. But to do so one would
have to be thinking more clearly than our leaders appear
There is no reason that Ontario and Manitoba could not
demand $1 billion from Ottawa to help reduce consumption
so that everybody, including Mother Nature, is better
off for the same expenditure. We could build smaller dams
to supply Northwestern Ontario, or we could build Conawapa
as we have had pounded into us for two decades and forego
Wuskwatin or Gull Rapids. But such a decision would mean
that aboriginal bands who have been promised a share of
those dams would go to the end of the waiting line.
The Doer government has just won a confident majority
that could last five years. Why are we being hyped to
do something that could better be done at a more sober,
open minded and responsible pace?