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Better Hydro: engaging with indigenous peoples at Keeyask, Canada

This case study is featured in Better Hydro: Compendium of Case Studies 2017, which highlights examples of good practice in hydropower sustainability across all aspects of project development. You can download the full compendium here.


Key project features

Project stage: preparation
Developer/operator: Manitoba Hydro
Capacity: 695 MW
Annual generation: 4,400 GWh
Purpose: power generation


The Keeyask project was developed by Manitoba Hydro (MH) in partnership with four Cree Nations communities affected by the project. This case study demonstrates best practices in engaging and working with indigenous peoples, respecting culture and livelihoods, achieving consent and providing significant benefits.

The proposed Keeyask hydropower project is located on the lower Nelson river, at Gull Rapids, upstream of Stephens Lake in northern Manitoba.

Project construction is projected to take approximately eight and a half years, from June 2014 to November 2022. It was estimated that the first of seven units would begin generating power in November 2019.

The reservoir will cover an area of 45 km2 , and was predicted to expand by 7 to 8 km2 over the first 30 years of operation. This would be due to erosion of mineral soil shorelines and peat-land disintegration. The project is designed to operate in either base loaded or peaking modes, using 1 m of available operating range.

The project design included a 25 km north access road, a 35 km south access road, and a 22 km construction power transmission line and substation. The construction of the north access road began in 2012.

The project was developed by MH in partnership with four Cree Nations communities affected by the project: Tataskweyak Cree Nation and War Lake First Nation (acting as the Cree Nation Partners); York Factory First Nation; and Fox Lake Cree Nation. MH is to own least 75 per cent of the partnership equity and the Keeyask Cree Nations had the right to own up to 25 per cent of the partnership.

Keeyask is located in the ancestral land of the four aboriginal partner communities (comprising around 5,500 people), known as the Keeyask Cree Nations (KCNs).

Affected aboriginal communities were given the option of becoming investing project partners and receiving revenues. These communities decided to become partners through referendums in each community. The project partnership agreement was developed between 1998 and 2009, and involved extensive negotiations and inclusive and participatory consultations with directly affected aboriginal communities. The project provided legal and advisory support and capacity-building throughout this process.

Environmental and social studies took a comprehensive approach to considering the views and local knowledge of the affected aboriginal communities. MH also reached agreements with the communities to address the adverse impacts of the project. These agreements address impacts of the project from a communitybased perspective, and build on previous agreements to address legacy issues from earlier hydro developments. 

The project took a comprehensive approach to incorporating local knowledge" 

MH provided financial support to the KCNs to participate in the assessment, regulatory licensing and agreements. The process involved establishing a number of processes and committees, such as: a partners’ regulatory and licensing committee; an assessment coordination team; and a number of working groups involving multilateral stakeholders and representatives of MH and each of the KCNs.

These committees and processes guaranteed the appropriate representation of indigenous points of view and cultural sensitivity. Each of the KCNs also conducted their own environmental assessments based on their Cree worldview. These assessments were filed in the licensing process along with the technical regulatory assessment required by the provincial and federal authorities.

Consent was achieved through community benefits including revenue sharing plus continuous engagement and involvement of indigenous peoples in decision-making

War Lake Store built by the trustThe project partnership agreement was developed between 1998 and 2009, and involved extensive negotiations and consultations between MH and KCNs. Engagement included a range of processes, including: working and reference groups, convened for the environmental and social aspects; regular open community meetings; off-reserve meetings; and websites created by the communities and the project. Consultations considered the aboriginal traditional knowledge and cultural practices.

All four First Nations approved the partnership agreement and the agreement to address adverse effects through a democratic referendum process. The project partnership agreement was public and legally enforceable, and addresses aspects of project development, potential income opportunities, and training, employment and business opportunities for the KCNs. The project also provides financial support to implement the partnership and maximise anticipated benefits.

Agreements addressed impacts beyond compensation and legacy issues"

The partnership agreement provides benefits that go well beyond simply providing mitigation and compensation for adverse effects. For example, the agreement includes a provision for the KCNs to enter into a project-ownership arrangement by investing their own money according to a defined plan. Each KCN is able to choose between two different investment options, with different levels of potential risk and possible reward. One of these options provides a guaranteed minimum return on investment. A KCNs investment option is chosen at the end of construction when final capital costs are known. 

Each KCN signed an adverse effects agreement with MH in 2009. These agreements aimed to avoid, mitigate, replace and compensate project impacts on KCNs with a focus on improving KCN livelihoods and living standards. The adverse effects agreements also provided elements beyond compensation, for strengthening cultural identity, lifestyle, values and aboriginal traditional knowledge and skills.

Depending on community, the agreements contained programmes related to resource access, the Cree language, land/ environmental stewardship, gravesite restoration, traditional life and knowledge, and oral histories and cultural sustainability.

In addition, each of the four KCNs had separate agreements with MH to provide compensation for legacy issues in relation to previous hydropower developments in northern Manitoba. 

The project provided support to manage revenues and maximise benefits"

The revenue generated through the partnership is to be deposited into individual KCNs' trusts, and each KCN will decide on how it is invested. This was stated in the partnership agreement.

Revenues could be invested in priority activities, such as new infrastructure. The project revenues are to provide a sustained source of income that contributes to each KCN's development. The compensation payments set out in the adverse effects agreement are also deposited into a trust fund, and used for mitigation programmes intended to strengthen the KCNs' culture and traditional practices.

The project also provided training and work experience in construction activities for KCN members. This would allow them to find other stable jobs in the future. This was facilitated through the 'Hydro Northern Training and Employment Initiative', a multi-year training programme designed by MH, affected aboriginal communities and the provincial and federal government to prepare northern aboriginals for employment on hydro and community projects.


This case study is based on an official assessment of the Keeyask project using the preparation stage tool of the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol. The assessment was conducted in 2012, with an on-site assessment in December 2012.

The case study is featured in Better Hydro: Compendium of Case Studies 2017, which highlights examples of good practice in hydropower sustainability across all aspects of project development. You can download the full compendium here.