WINNIPEG — The board of directors at Manitoba Hydro resigned en masse Wednesday, leading to counter-accusations from Premier Brian Pallister and the spectre of a lawsuit from the Manitoba Metis Federation.
Nine of 10 board members at the provincial Crown corporation issued a written statement in which they cited an inability to work with Pallister and his Progressive Conservative government. The only remaining board member is Tory backbencher Cliff Graydon.
"For over a year we have attempted to meet with the premier to resolve a number of critical issues related to the finances and governance of Manitoba Hydro, including matters related to Hydro's efforts to further develop its relationship with Indigenous peoples," the statement read.
"Despite repeated attempts, we have not been able to have a meaningful dialogue with the government and we have reached an impasse. We have been informed the government intends to remove the chair and has therefore lost confidence in the board. Accordingly we have determined that it is necessary to resign."
Pallister, however, said the resignations stem from a dispute over a plan by Hydro to pay $70 million to the Manitoba Metis Federation so the organization won't pursue concerns over a new transmission line to Minnesota.
"I would describe it more as persuasion money," Pallister said Wednesday. "To not push for extended environmental hearings on that line and also for acquiescence or non-participation in future such proposals that Hydro might make."
Pallister said when the government discovered the planned payment, it immediately objected.
Federation president David Chartrand accused Pallister of using "race card" tactics and said he insulted the entire Metis Nation for implying they could be "bought off."
He said there was a negotiated agreement with the Hydro board for $67 million, paid out over 50 years, to offset the effects of Hydro's Bipolle III project and the new transmission line on traditional Metis territory.
"It is an outright lie and (Pallister) is just trying to mislead his own party and mislead Manitobans with that action. That's not what this issue is about," Chartrand said. "This issue is about his arrogance and that he would not give the time of day to the biggest Crown corporation."
Chartrand said he has instructed lawyers to move to litigation.
Manitoba Hydro is racking up billions of dollars in debt to build new generating stations and transmission lines, and is asking regulators to approve annual rate increases of up to 7.9 per cent for the next several years.
The Progressive Conservatives opposed the plan while in Opposition, but said after winning the 2016 election that it was too late to reverse the construction projects.
The Tories replaced the Hydro board less than two years ago with the nine members who are now resigning.
Pallister said he had spoken with board members but avoided meetings because he did not want to seem to be interfering in Hydro's regulatory applications to the Public Utilities Board.
Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew said it's a "desperate attempt" for Pallister to blame everyone but himself, while Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont called the dispute a "full-blown crisis" and an indictment of Pallister's leadership.
Loren Remillard, CEO of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, said the province needs to move quickly to appoint a new board to send a message of stability that "the core business is still responsible, sustainable, well-managed."
Pallister said a new Hydro board will be appointed soon.
— with files from Kelly Geraldine Malone
Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press