Winnipeg Sun, March 22, 2018

Former Hydro chair Sandy Riley knew the proposed deal to pay the MMF $67 million was precedent setting.

The reason former Manitoba Hydro board members resigned their positions in a shocking move this week may not be due entirely to a controversial, multi-million plan to pay out the Manitoba Metis Federation in exchange for their cooperation on Hydro projects.

After a 45-minute interview with former board chairman Sandy Riley Thursday, it’s pretty clear it played a key role in his decision.

Riley vehemently denies the reason he and the board left was because the Pallister government was opposed to a $67-million pay-out to the MMF.

“This is one I take deep offence to,” Riley said in a telephone interview. “I find it deeply offensive, I find it very cynical to use this as the smokescreen for the real reasons why we resigned, and it’s wrong.”

It may not be the only reason, but it’s a big one.

Hydro negotiated a 50-year deal with the MMF that included the creation of a $37-million trust fund and annual payments for 20 years. In exchange for the payments, the MMF agreed not to challenge in court or in licensing applications existing and future Hydro projects, including the Manitoba-Minnesota Transmission Project.

While Riley says he’s appalled by anyone characterizing that as “hush money” or “persuasion money” – as Premier Brian Pallister has – it’s not far off, even by Riley’s own admission.

“We bought peace in the valley for 50 years when it comes to the Metis claims,” said Riley. “It covered a multiplicity of projects.”

Considering how much it may have cost in delays and other legal proceedings if the MMF were to challenge future or existing Hydro projects, $67 million is a good deal, said Riley.

“That is a very attractive price,” he said.

Maybe it is, but it’s still a price paid in exchange for silence, or inaction. Is it “hush money?” It is, at the very least, a pay-off to stay out of Hydro’s way.

It’s a different kind of deal than Hydro has ever entered into before, which Riley freely acknowledges. Most compensation deals with Indigenous communities are linked to the impact a project has on aboriginal lands or nearby lands. This one has nothing to do with specific lands. It has only to do with Metis “rights” which remain ill-defined beyond government’s legal requirement to consult.

“We knew it was precedent setting and we knew it was different from the other agreements we had done,” said Riley. “We wanted to discuss it with (government) and explain to them why we thought it was a good deal and make sure they were comfortable with it.”

In other words, they knew it was controversial.

Riley said they brought the proposed deal to government in November but government refused to engage on it.

“As recently as a week ago I had a conversation with the minister (Cliff Cullen) saying we have to have a conversation on this, not just on this but on the Indigenous files generally” said Riley.

“And he said I can’t do that, I’m sorry we can’t have that conversation, that’s a conversation for someone else, meaning the premier.”

That’s where the rubber appeared to hit the road for Riley and his board. Yes, they had many other outstanding issues they wanted direction on from government, including how to deal with the corporation’s serious financial problems.

The MMF deal, which Hydro worked so hard to draft, seems particularly close to Riley’s heart. And when it was clear the Pallister government wasn’t interested in even discussing the deal, that’s when things went off the rails.

Riley said he got a call from a senior official from the premier’s office Monday to see if he was interested in another Crown corporation post. When he declined, he got the boot.

“I said so you want to fire me and he said I don’t like to use that word but it’s time for a change,” said Riley.

So they all quit.

And there will be no $67-million payout to the MMF.