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Draining Energy from the Innu of Nitassinan

Expansive reservoirs spread out below us, amorphous as natural lakes, until hemmed in abruptly by dykes, dams, and "control structures." Dead timber clogs the shorelines. Roads make their way sinuously, connecting dyke to dam to power station to transformer yard, and then, north to south. Transmission lines traverse the landscape on a much more bold and direct path. I busily scribble notes, recording the facts and figures delivered by our hosts representing Hydro-Québec. How high the dams are. How much sand and gravel was quarried for their construction. What species of fish live in this "new ecosystem." What measures were taken to prevent the feared drowning of beavers when the waters rose. How many alders were planted in an attempt to revegetate the disturbed sites. What other mitigation measures were employed to make this massive transformation "environmentally acceptable." George Gregoire from Utshimassit, sitting next to me in the helicopter, leans over and asks, "Why are you writing all that down? What does any of that matter? Just look at it down there…it's a mess!"

Along with George, five other representatives from the Innu communities in Labrador were visiting the La Grande hydroelectric complex in Cree territory of the James Bay region of Québec. Hydro-Québec (HQ) was showing us their hospitality and demonstrating what they had learned from all of their efforts to decrease the environmental effects of the developments at La Grande. They wished to help the Innu people understand some of the realities of such a project, good and bad. The reason: HQ is proposing this time to build another series of such facilities in partnership with Newfoundland/Labrador Hydro in the Churchill and La Romaine watersheds of southern Labrador and Québec -- in Innu territory.

The people are told: "It's a good business opportunity; people in New England need the power; it is "clean" electricity." "We can do this in an environmentally and socially acceptable manner." "Let's be reasonable." "We want your support but we don't need your consent." "Oh, and we want to start immediately."

Flipping a switch in Boston or Montreal, we seldom consider the origins of the energy flowing through the lines, or the phenomenal distance it may have traveled from lands virtually unknown to most of us. Nor are we generally aware of the myriad effects that industrial-scale energy production may have on the peoples and ecosystems of those remote places.

Our societies are searching ever farther afield for sources of power. Hydroelectricity is now being produced in remote northern regions to provide customers in the large population centers of southern Canada and the New England states. The majority of projects already constructed are on the ancestral lands of Indigenous Peoples, who in many cases were forced under duress to agree to the developments, or were not consulted at all because the state does not recognize Indigenous Peoples' authority over their lands.

More Dams on Indigenous Lands

Gigantic new hydroelectric developments are being proposed for Nitassinan, the territory of the Innu people of southern Labrador and Québec. Governments and utilities are single-mindedly pursuing an agenda to build these projects, despite the fact that large-scale hydraulic engineering schemes the world over are coming under question due to their extensive environmental and social impacts (see for example the Fall 1999 issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly). Particularly in regions with large human populations, such plans are becoming less and less acceptable due to the increasing recognition of an imbalance in accounting for the costs incurred to produce the desired benefits.

Regrettably, where there are few people, and where those people have less political power within the state, such development continues to be considered by promoters as "model." The scenario has been played out many times in northern Canada, a land rich in the swift-flowing rivers ideal for hydroelectric power production. Of course, these rivers are ideal for numerous other uses as well, many of which are precluded when the waters are harnessed and controlled by power facilities.

The Cree of northern Manitoba, the Cree and Inuit of northern Québec and the Innu of Labrador and Québec, among others, have all been faced with large-scale river diversions, dams, extensive flooding, roads, transmission corridors, and an influx of outside workers into their traditional territories, all associated with hydroelectric production for domestic use and export to the United States. The irreversible environmental and social changes incurred by hydroelectric developments are borne disproportionately by the local people largely for the sake of the direct vested interests and the consumers of the south.

The current situation in Nitassinan is closely tied to the levels of resource consumption by the burgeoning populations to the south. The construction of the Churchill Falls Hydroelectric Facility in the early 1970's was completed with no consultation with the Innu and no com-pensation of any kind for lost hunting and fishing lands, grave sites, or possessions -- all flooded under the huge reservoirs. In addition to the hydroelectric developments, the Innu people have endured numerous other industrial incursions on their lands over the past several decades. These include mines accompanied by roads and railways, commercial forestry, and disruptive military training activities. The Innu never consented to these projects. "That is all behind us now," the government claims. "Tilings have changed, and we now wish to negotiate partnerships with the Innu to pursue new business opportunities."

In other areas, people are demanding a choice. The Cree and Inuit successfully fought the Great Whale Hydroelectric project in the James and Hudson's Bay regions of Québec in the early 1990's. Perhaps partially as a result of the shelving of that project, the attentions of Hydro-Québec have returned in earnest to the power potential of the Churchill River in Labrador to increase their capacity to supply the lucrative deregulating electricity markets in New England.

Hydro-Québec and Newfoundland/Labrador Hydro are attempting to negotiate a partnership in a scheme to tap additional hydroelectric energy from the Churchill River. This would involve diverting the La Romaine, a major river now flowing south into the Gulf of St. Lawrence to instead flow north and join the waters of the existing reservoir above the former Churchill Falls. A 325 foot dam on the lower Churchill River would flood the river valley up to the base of the existing power facility. A total of approximately 800 square miles would be flooded. An additional dam (under consideration) further downstream could flood the remaining river valley.

The entire length of the largest river in Labrador would then be a controlled reservoir system.

The utilities have an urgent agenda to complete this project within the next ten years in order to capture a greater share of the deregulating New England electricity market.

Unresolved Jurisdiction and Land Rights

The Labrador Innu have never ceded their lands to any other government by treaty or by other legally sanctioned means. Canadian law recognizes that Innu occupation of the lands prior to European arrival, and continued contemporary use, establishes a legitimate claim to collective land rights. However, the federal and provincial governments are treating the region as wholly under their jurisdiction until the specific rights of the Innu are explicitly negotiated and agreed upon.

This "negotiation" process is dominated by the desire of the existing state level governments to retain as much access and control over land and water resources as possible. At the same time, they are charged with brokering a "fair" deal with the Indigenous Peoples to "give" them some recognized rights over their traditional lands and allow them a degree of self-determination in the cultural evolution of their communities. Not surprisingly, the negotiation process is lengthy and rife with conflict. In the meantime, the lands in question continue to be developed, alienated, and irrevocably changed.

So, while the two small Innu communities of Sheshatshiu and Utshimassit are attempting to deal with the challenge of land rights negotiations, and as they struggle under the weight of an array of industrial development pressures controlled by outside interests, they are asked to consider the implications of yet another multi-billion dollar scheme. They are not being asked for their consent as they still have no recognized jurisdiction in Nitassinan. Their political support is sought, however. Developers require some assurance that opposition to the project will not rise as it did against similar projects in Québec and more recently in Manitoba.

Pressure to Choose

What degree of choice will Innu communities have over the proposed development? To date, the project has not been publicly scrutinized within the context of regional energy or development policies that seriously examine issues of sustainable and desirable environments and livelihoods. An environmental assessment will be conducted, but such exercises are inherently biased in favor of the predesigned project and the development paradigm supporting the proposal. Alternatives are typically given only cursory attention.

Consider the results of recent environmental assessments conducted on other major projects and activities in the region. The training of pilots for military low-level flying has been banned in several European countries due to public concern over the dangers and disturbances caused by this activity. The Canadian government, through NATO, allows several countries to train their pilots in Labrador from the military base at Goose Bay. This arrangement is lucrative for the Canadian government, but has been strongly opposed by the Innu people. An environmental assessment completed for these training activities concluded that the environmental effects were uncertain, but that the economic effect of closing the training down would constitute too high an economic cost for the community that has grown up around the military base. The Innu, who had protested military use of their land for years, articulating the severe disturbance military activities have on their life in the bush, were clearly afforded only secondary consideration. As a result of the environmental assessment process, a research institute was set up to monitor its effects, and the training program was expanded.

In another case, the proposed nickel mine at Emish (Voisey's Bay) on the northern Labrador coast was subjected to an environmental assessment. An inde-pendent panel charged with reviewing the report recommended that the mine not be allowed to proceed prior to the settlement of land claims with the Innu and Inuit people of the region. The provincial and federal governments have chosen not to accept this condition, and are proceeding to negotiate with the mine developers while the issue of indigenous land rights remains unresolved.

At issue here is certainly the question of who should have the right to decide how these lands are used and manipulated. Do we condone the status quo in our society in which colonized cultures are forced, blatantly or subtly, to conform to the perceived needs of consumers and large corporate interests?

It is true that circumstances have changed in recent decades. Awareness of, and respect for, the interests and concerns of the Innu people has increased. Efforts to train and employ local people on the projects are being undertaken. Environmental impacts are given more serious consideration, and a far greater degree of consultation takes place than in the past. Monetary compensation is also offered for damages to lands by new developments. These are all welcome improvements. Nevertheless, such large industrial projects create extensive and inevitable change. Those most directly affected by such developments must be given the time and ability to consider the implications in depth and explore meaningful choices.

Innu communities want their children to have opportunities and choices for future livelihoods. However, it is also imperative not to compromise existing values. In the rush to "develop" the land and waters, the exigencies of contemporary markets may leave far too little time for the Innu people to gain adequate control over their lands and satisfactorily guide their own cultural evolution.

Ironically, Brian Tobin, the Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, recently stated that although developers are pressuring him to agree to proceed with the mine at Voisey's Bay, the people of the province can afford to wait as long as it takes, to consider carefully the best course to take and how they can best benefit from existing resources. He boldly asserted that, "We do not need to take the first deal that comes along just because the company is big and our need is strong." Hopefully this principle will apply in the case of the Innu of Nitassinan as well.

References & further reading

Clugston, M. (1998). Power Struggle. Canadian Geographic 118(7), pp 58-76.

Innu Nation. (1998). Money Doesn't Last, the Land is Forever. Final Report. Innu Nation community consultation on land rights negotiations.

Innu Nation Task Force on Mining Activities. (1996). Ntesinan Nteshiniminan Nteniunan Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Final Report.

Wadden, M. (1991). Nitassinan: The Innu Struggle to Reclaim their Homeland. Toronto: Douglas & Mcintyre.

Innu web site:

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