Views / Winnipeg

Can we avoid privatized Hydro's cold embrace?

Ontario’s story of high hydro rates could be Manitoba’s story if we are not careful, writes Shannon VanRaes.

Growing up in Southern Ontario — no, not Toronto — winter mornings followed a familiar pattern.

I would stumble out of my bedroom, wrapped in a cocoon of sweaters and blankets before complaining to my mother the house was freezing. Her response never wavered, the answer was always — if you’re cold, start a fire.

This wasn’t hyperbole or a poor attempt at parental humour, it was simply a fact of life given we heated our R-2000 house with wood. Not because of some back-to-the-land philosophy, not because it was charming or convenient, but because the cost of electricity in Ontario is and was astronomically high.

My parents still live in the 1980s ranch-style home I spent most of my youth in. They still heat with wood, rely on passive solar and use a timer to limit hot water to a few hours a day and yet their electrical bills top $500 a month.

Now at this juncture you may be thinking, “That’s a very quaint story Shannon, but what does it have to do with me? How does this affect Manitoba? How does this impact my little shack in Winnipeg?”

Let me tell you.

Ontario’s story could be Manitoba’s story if we are not careful, if we don’t plan and don’t hold our elected leaders accountable. Already, rate increases are planned for Manitoba Hydro and no doubt there will be more in the years to come, but the real threat ahead is the threat of privatization.

Over the last several years, Manitoba Hydro has become less of a utility and more of a political wedge. Religious zealots have debated with less fervour than those who argued over the route Bipole III should take.

Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conservatives campaigned heavily in the last election on the promise to reroute the high voltage transmission line, but any reasonable person knew it was an empty promise that couldn’t be kept. So much work had already been done on the line, so many hearings, so much ink spilled, that even before the campaign started it was patently obvious there was no way to go back.

Now the Tories have installed a fresh board of directs at the Crown Corporation, which has not surprisingly endorsed that party’s previously stated point of view — the projects were mismanaged, there was meddling and too much money was spent.

Manitoba Hydro’s new chairman Sanford Riley has suggested the provincial government should shoulder the Crown Corporation’s current and growing debt so Manitoba avoids falling into the same dire situation Ontario finds itself in, one where electricity rates have doubled since 2005.

But the provincial government has not jumped at the suggestion.

Because the real risk is that the Progressive Conservatives aren’t really opposed to one project or another, one solution or another, it’s that they’re opposed to Manitoba Hydro as a Crown Corporation.

I don’t have a crystal ball, but if I did I bet it would say that in the coming years we’ll hear repeatedly that Crown Corporation is too in debt to survive, that it’s falling apart and barely functioning. From its decorative repose on my coffee table, the crystal ball would predict the Tories will seek expert opinions from the private sector, then say privatization is needed, and that competition will cure what ails us. Then in their second term it will be a fait accompli.

No, no, they never intended to do it, never planned to privatize, but they didn’t know how bad it really was until they were in office, the hypothetical crystal ball tells me they’ll say.

And then? Well then I’ll install a wood stove.

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