WINNIPEG — The former board chairman of Manitoba Hydro criticized Premier Brian Pallister on Thursday and defended a planned $67-million payment to the Manitoba Metis Federation.
"What we need is a strong board, and we need a premier who's prepared to take leadership in addressing some very significant issues that Hydro faces," Sanford Riley told The Canadian Press.
Riley and eight of the other nine board members at the Crown corporation quit en masse Wednesday. They said they had been unable to secure a meeting with Pallister for more than a year to discuss key issues.
Pallister said the dispute stems from a proposal submitted by the board last fall to pay the Metis federation $67 million over 20 years in relation to new Hydro developments.
The planned payment was unusual, Pallister said, because it did not appear to compensate anyone for lost land or displacement. Instead, the money would have been in exchange for a federation promise not to oppose several projects, including a new transmission line to the United States, the premier said.
The government halted the deal, partly to protect taxpayers from having to pay "persuasion money" and partly to protect the rights of future generations of Metis to seek regulatory reviews or question future projects.
"I don't think ... that signing off on your rights, at the expense of your children, is the right thing to do," Pallister said.
A copy of the proposed deal, obtained by The Canadian Press, said the Metis federation would not oppose projects currently underway as well as future domestic transmission lines, less than 250 kilometres in length, for up to 50 years.
The proposal said the federation would have to support Manitoba Hydro licence applications and "agree not to appeal or contest any approvals or licences issued."
Riley said the proposal made sense in light of recent court rulings that have supported Metis rights. In 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the country's 600,000 Metis have many of the same rights as First Nations individuals, including the right to be consulted.
Riley said the payment could be lower than the cost of legal challenges and compensation for upcoming Manitoba Hydro projects.
"This made more sense from a financial and from a social perspective."
He called Pallister's criticism "deeply cynical, offensive to the board ... and wrong."
While there is no mention of lost land in the proposed deal, Metis federation president David Chartrand said the money was partly to compensate for land cleared for hydro poles.
"There was clear-cutting that was done in traditional areas that were used for cultural events or berry-picking," Chartrand said earlier this week.
"We have some very famous areas where we pick our blueberries ... and so it (would have) helped to develop new blueberry areas."
Riley and some other board members have Progressive Conservative connections and were appointed by the Tory government less than two years ago.
Riley has served in advisory and support roles over the years for former Tory leaders. He is also a successful business executive. He said this dispute is not about partisan politics.
"I'm not interested in the partisan stuff that goes on around this. I'm interested in doing the right thing for Manitoba."
Pallister said a new board would be appointed Friday.