Pauingassi First Nation evacuee Eli Owens says repairs to the wildfire-destroyed Manitoba Hydro poles can’t come soon enough, as he and his common-law partner continue navigating day-to-day life from a cramped hotel room in Winnipeg, without vaccination cards while caring for three children aged one to 10.
In July, a wildfire forced Pauingassi and Little Grand Rapids First Nations residents from their communities and disconnected around 1,500 of its customers from power, preventing their return from Winnipeg back to their fly-in communities more than 250 kilometres northeast of the city.
“It’s been tough,” Owens told Global News on Tuesday. “(The kids) don’t like it. It’s hard on them … They want to go home. They miss home.”
Owens said he’s wanted to take his children to the movie theatre but can’t because he’s waiting to receive a physical copy of his vaccination card. Without his phone, Owens said he also can’t access the digital copy.
“Without the vaccination cards, I don’t know. I’m just stuck in this hotel,” Owens said.
Manitoba Hydro’s pole repairs aren’t happening fast enough, he said, a sentiment shared by Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas, who called the provincial Crown corporation’s response “unacceptable.”
“The 1,500 citizens of Little Grand Rapids and Pauingassi continue to languish in hotel rooms in Winnipeg due to Manitoba Hydro’s neglect and failure to expedite the restoration of power to these First Nations,” AMC wrote in a Monday news release.
“With school starting, children … are being forced to learn in their hotel rooms until power is restored in the communities.”
“The people are becoming traumatized by this neglect and having to stay in single hotel rooms with as many as five other family members,” Dumas said in the release.
“If this were a situation involving a non-First Nation community, a declaration of emergency would have been made, and no expense would be spared to accommodate and comfort community members, including providing generators and other emergency equipment so that people can be safely repatriated,” he said.
Dumas told CJOB on Tuesday Manitoba Hydro was treating First Nations as secondary concerns. While acknowledging long-term restoration would take time, Dumas said short-term solutions like generators should be in place by now, as they were when the 2019 October blizzard struck Dauphin River.
Manitoba Hydro, however, is pushing back against claims it isn’t doing enough to restore power. The provincial Crown corporation has already considered generators, spokesperson Scott Powell told CJOB on Tuesday.
Comparing Dauphin River to Pauingassi and Little Grand Rapids is like comparing apples to oranges, Powell said in an email, because Dauphin River is not only accessible by road but also smaller, unlike the two fly-in First Nations.
“Helicopters can’t lift the size of generators that would be required to serve those communities in order to allow people to return home,” Powell told CJOB. “You’re talking huge diesel generators that would then also require work and resources to even connect to the local grid through the substation.”
Using small portable generators also wouldn’t be a feasible option, Powell added, because they’re designed for moderate, temporary use, not for larger-scale needs such as community or health centres, grocery store refrigeration and schools.
“That would divert people from doing the permanent repairs to the line, which is progressing quite well.”
As of Tuesday, Manitoba Hydro had replaced 57 of the 90 damaged poles, estimating crews would need another three to five weeks to complete the work, depending on weather conditions.
“The damage to the line serving those communities was severe, and unfortunately … This complicates repairs by an order of magnitude,” Powell said, as the line also runs through rocky and swampy terrain, where crews must set poles into pure rock.
“We appreciate the impact this outage is having on residents of the communities and the situation they are having to deal with,” Powell said. “We know they want to home, and we are working as hard as possible to make that happen quickly and safely.”
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