Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government has been under increasing pressure to rethink its decision to sell off most of Hydro One to raise money for infrastructure spending since it announced the sale last spring.
First, a group of eight respected legislative watchdogs, including the auditor general and ombudsman, issued a joint — and blunt — warning that privatizing 60 per cent of the utility will “significantly reduce” their ability to hold it accountable on behalf of taxpayers.
Then an internal government poll found that 73 per cent of respondents believe the Crown electricity transmission utility should definitely or probably stay in public hands.
Now First Nations are rightly asking why they weren’t consulted extensively about the planned sell-off of the company.
As Chiefs of Ontario leader Isadore Day explained to the Toronto Star’s Sara Mojtehedzadeh, the sale could dramatically affect First Nations’ economic and environmental fortunes. That alone should have triggered the government’s constitutional duty to consult First Nations when they believe a decision will affect aboriginal land and rights.
There are, in fact, a number of reasons, constitutional and otherwise, that “extensive consultation” should have occurred, as Day argues.
The first is that so many of Hydro One’s transmission lines run through First Nations traditional territories.
The second is that the utility has, after lengthy delays, implemented a welcome strict consultation and grievance process with First Nations communities. A sale could jeopardize that.
Finally, Hydro One’s infrastructure projects have become a significant source of economic development for First Nations people. For example, the Saugeen Ojibway Nation struck a deal with Hydro One in 2013 to acquire a 30 per cent stake — worth $72 million — in a hydro transmission line crossing its traditional territory. All those relations could be threatened under the new ownership plan.
As Alex Monem, a lawyer representing numerous First Nations affected by the decision put it, the government has used its wholly owned corporations to reconcile “bad history” with First Nations. “Now they’re going to divest themselves of that vehicle.”
To be fair, the government has argued it will still maintain a larger share in Hydro One than any other investor. Other companies will not be allowed to buy more than 10 per cent of the utility. Still, there is a danger that private stakeholders could flex their muscle as a group, and push to ignore First Nations concerns about Hydro One projects or investment deals.
In the end, as the Star has previously argued, if the government isn’t going to rethink its decision it should at least hold on to a majority stake in Hydro One.
Ontario’s First Nations just gave it one more reason to do so.