Manitoba Hydro reduces workforce at Keeyask over COVID-19 cases on site

Manitoba Hydro says it will reduce its workforce at Keeyask, the northern Manitoba generating site currently under construction, after five workers tested positive for COVID-19.

“With the increasing number of COVID cases we’re seeing in Manitoba and the escalation of levels in the RestartMB Pandemic Response System announced Friday, we feel that this decision — informed by the latest guidance from public health officials — is absolutely the right course of action to take,” said Jay Grewal, Manitoba Hydro’s president and CEO in a news release issued late Saturday.

The Crown corporation says all 764 workers on site were tested using a private lab. Any screening that indicates a “not clear” result is then verified through the Cadham Provincial Lab.

As of Saturday afternoon, five people at Keeyask tested positive for COVID-19, while another 12 had unclear results of their initial screening. At the last update on Oct. 28, one person had tested positive and another was presumed positive.

Contact tracing and isolation is being put in place for all staff — and their close contacts  — whose test results are unclear.

The utility’s move comes after a First Nations advocacy agency and four northern First Nations called on the province to move the Keeyask construction site to red, or critical, according to the province’s colour-coded pandemic response system

As of Monday most of Manitoba will move to orange, or restricted, while metro Winnipeg will move to red.

People from the four First Nations work at Keeyask, and they worry some of them may have unknowingly brought COVID-19 back to their home communities before the first case of COVID-19 was detected on Oct. 22, according to a release issued by Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak on Saturday evening.

“The situation at Keeyask is of grave concern,” said Chief Morris Beardy of Fox Lake Cree Nation in a statement.

“We are concerned for all workers at site, including those from our vulnerable First Nations, and the communities they come from across Manitoba and beyond. We need provincial leadership to immediately declare the site a code red and take immediate action to gain control of the situation.”

Manitoba Hydro didn’t provide details about how many workers will remain on site, nor did it confirm how many are self-isolating.

It’s also not sure when regular work rotations will resume. Grewal says that will be determined in consultation with public health officials.

Travel to hotspots

The neighbouring First Nations are worried about the sheer number of workers coming and going from COVID-19 hotspots like Winnipeg. The Keeyask site is about 710 km north of Winnipeg.

“We are urging the province of Manitoba to put into place orders preventing people from entering or leaving this site until this outbreak is declared over. First Nations have undertaken many actions to restrict the transmission of COVID-19 and we are urging the province to do the same,” said Chief Doreen Spence of the Tataskweyak Cree Nation in the release.

In May, a crowd of people from all four partner First Nations joined in solidarity as Tataskweyak Cree Nation was served with an injunction to take down their blockade at Keeyask. (Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak/Facebook)

War Lake First Nation Chief Betsy Kennedy added, “Manitoba Hydro must listen to the reasonable demands of the First Nations that are partners in the Keeyask project.”

Earlier this year, the First Nations partners formed two blockades to prevent the hydro company from carrying out a shift change over concerns about COVID-19 entering the area. At that point, there were no cases of COVID-19.

Now, there are numerous cases in northern Manitoba and First Nations are struggling to contain the spread.

York Factory First Nation Chief Leroy Constant echoed some of the sentiments expressed during the May blockades in his statement Saturday.

“We need to see action on this issue today, otherwise we will be taking action as sovereign First Nations.”

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