Former Manitoba Hydro worker files complaint alleging years of racism at Wuskwatim site

A Manitoba Hydro worker who says he endured years of racism and bullying while working at the Wuskwatim generating station in northern Manitoba has filed a complaint with the Crown corporation about his treatment on the job.       

Ken Linklater, a member of Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation — a partner with Manitoba Hydro in the Wuskwatim project — filed a formal complaint with Manitoba Hydro on Nov. 4 and resigned two weeks later.

Linklater says a supervisor asked on at least three occasions whether he and his colleagues were “drinking Windex” after Linklater would go to a storage area to get cleaning products for housekeeping duties. 

He says he felt the supervisor’s remark was a stereotypical reference to Indigenous people abusing solvents.

In another example, Linklater’s complaint said that when people from Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation would go to a campsite at Wuskwatim for cultural gatherings, the supervisor “would say out loud for everyone to hear, ‘The village people are coming. Lock up everything.'”

“His comments showed his dislike for Indigenous people. So why is he still allowed to work on NCN [Nisichawayasihk] territory?” Linklater wrote in his complaint.

‘The racism’s there with Hydro,’ Linklater says. ‘It’s got to stop somewhere. And this is the reason why I’m speaking out.’ (Zoom)

The formal complaint said the supervisor made offensive statements about Indigenous people over a period spanning about the past three years.

“Manitoba Hydro has a responsibility to look after its employees and I feel I am being forced out by racism being permitted to continue,” Linklater wrote in his complaint.

“It was a shock for me to encounter such disrespect and racism in the workplace.”

Review conducted: Hydro

Linklater said when he started working eight years ago as a utility worker doing maintenance at the Wuskwatim power station — located on the Burntwood River between Thompson and Nelson House — it was a good job.

But that changed when the supervisor began to bully him, he says.

Linklater says he decided to share his complaint with CBC News and is speaking publicly about it in the hope that others who may have experienced similar problems will come forward.

“The racism’s there with Hydro,” Linklater said in an interview. “It’s got to stop somewhere. And this is the reason why I’m speaking out.”

He said he’s no longer interested in working with Hydro.

“I don’t want other people to go through what I went through.… People should just get along together.”

Manitoba Hydro has conducted a review of the complaint.

However, to “protect the privacy and identity of individuals involved, Manitoba Hydro cannot disclose or discuss the outcome of that process,” media relations officer Bruce Owen said in a statement to CBC News. 

“A review of the Nov. 4, 2020, complaint revealed the allegations were previously raised in 2019,” Owen said.

The allegations “were assessed by independent experts earlier this year and an action plan resulting from that review was developed and continues to be implemented.”

The supervisor named in the complaint is still an employee of Manitoba Hydro, Owen said.

‘Sad to hear, but it’s real’: NCN chief

In recent years Manitoba Hydro has been in the news for allegations of racism at other work sites, including the Keeyask generating station being built on the lower Nelson River, 725 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

“It’s appalling,” said Mike Espenell, business manager for Linklater’s union, IBEW Local 2034, which was copied on the written complaint.

“It’s crazy to think that in this day and age, we’re still having to deal with these types of issues,” he said.

“I think a lot of it just goes down to either ignorance and insensitivity” and a lack of awareness of “how our actions and our words … affect others.”

Mike Espenell, business manager for Linklater’s union, IBEW Local 2034, was copied on the written complaint and says Linklater’s experience was ‘appalling.’ (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Nisichawayasihk Chief Marcel Moody said he first learned of complaints like Linklater’s at Wuskwatim a year ago, when an independent investigator was hired to undertake a workplace assessment.

“Bullying in the workplace, harassment, discrimination, all that stuff.… We haven’t ignored it. We’re trying to deal with it as best we can, as quickly as we can,” he said.

“We hired an independent investigator to basically find out whether, in fact, this was true or not, and they did an assessment and it came up with recommendations,” Moody said, adding that was followed by a meeting with staff.

“Racism doesn’t belong anywhere,” he said. “We want to have a safe environment, harassment-free environment.”

That’s sometimes been hard to achieve, he says.

“It’s sad to hear that it’s happening in our own plant, that’s partially owned by NCN,” Moody said. 

“Hopefully people can get past their issues and start working together because we hear so much about what’s happening, about … systemic racism all across North America. And it’s sad to see and it’s sad to hear, but it’s real.”

Manitoba Hydro’s spokesperson said that among the Crown corporation’s workforce of about 5,000 employees, about 1,000 are Indigenous, including 48 per cent of the northern workforce.

“Manitoba Hydro also takes all allegations and matters of racism and bullying seriously,” Bruce Owen said in his email to CBC News.

Manitoba Hydro has a respectful workplace program, which means all employees receive training on a discrimination and harassment-free workplace policy, he said.

“Our program reflects Manitoba Hydro’s commitment to creating and maintaining a safe, inclusive and respectful work environment for everyone, and prescribes processes to address concerns regarding discrimination, harassment, and sexual harassment,” Owen said.