A coalition of First Nations from Quebec, Labrador, and Maine is opposing a proposed transmission line to carry Hydro-Québec electricity to New England, on the grounds that 36 per cent of Hydro-Québec’s energy is “stolen” from the First Nations on whose territory the electricity is produced, and that the transmission line will have an adverse environmental impact in Maine.
The Penobscot Nation of Maine, the Innu Nation of Labrador, and Quebec’s First Nations of Pessamit (Innu), Wemotaci (Atikamekw), Pikogan, Kitcisakik, and Lac Simon (Anishnabek), have asked U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to cancel approvals of the line.
In selling the power to New England, the Quebec utility is ignoring “the ancestral rights of the communities in question,” as recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada and Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution, the coalition argues.
They say Hydro-Québec makes billions in profits from its exports, while Indigenous groups, on whose territory the power is generated, get nothing.
In their public statements, federal ministers acknowledge they stand on unceded Indigenous territory.
And ever since Joyce Echaquan, an Atikamekw mother of seven, broadcast on Facebook her own mistreatment in a Quebec hospital that led to her death, the provincial government has committed to eliminating racism against Indigenous and racialized minorities.
But when it comes to revenues from the hydro power generated on their unceded territory, First Nations in Quebec receive a wealth of good intentions — but rarely cash.
An exception is the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement and successive accords negotiated between Quebec and the Cree of Eeyou Istchee, as they call their James Bay territory.
The Cree — led at the time by their 26-year-old grand chief, Billy Diamond, and a legal team headed by James O’Reilly — joined their Inuit and Naskapi allies to sign an agreement in 1975 that started a process to provide them with revenues, and to allow them to move out from under the Indian Act and create their own self-government.
The James Bay agreement was possible, because Quebec wanted to build its massive James Bay hydroelectric-power project, and Albert Malouf, a Quebec Superior Court judge, had ruled that “the rights of the Cree Indian and Inuit populations have never been extinguished.”
Malouf granted an injunction that temporarily stopped then-premier Robert Bourassa’s “project of the century” and led to the negotiations.
More recently, Hydro-Québec negotiated a $10-billion contract to sell surplus hydro power to the states of Massachusetts and Maine, and it’s negotiating another $10-billion agreement with New York.
The New England sale would send 500,000 megawatt-hours of discounted Quebec power a year to Maine, on top of 1,200 megawatts, or 9.45 terawatt-hours of power a year, over 20 years to Massachusetts, amounting to 16 per cent of the state’s consumption.
To carry that electricity to New England, Hydro-Québec plans to spend $603 million on a 103-kilometre transmission line from Saint-Adrien-d’Irlande, Que., to the Maine border.
Avangrid, its American partner in the transmission-line project, will spend US$950 million on the 232-kilometre Maine portion of the line.
A proposed referendum on that portion was ruled unconstitutional last year, but a second referendum proposal has collected enough valid signatures to trigger a referendum in the state, set for Nov. 2, to shut down the project — and, with it, Hydro-Québec’s contracts with Massachusetts and Maine.
Writing to the Canadian Energy Regulator (CER), which must approve the transmission line, Quebec’s Secretariat of Aboriginal Affairs noted that the Quebec government “has an obligation to consult Aboriginal communities, and, if necessary, accommodate them when it envisages measures that could have a prejudicial impact on an ancestral or treaty right claimed in a credible fashion.”
Quebec’s environmental assessment agency — the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE) — has approved the Quebec portion of the line, although the provincial cabinet hasn’t yet issued its final approval.
Testifying at the BAPE hearings, representatives of the Innu First Nation of Pessamit, as well as the Wemotaci Atikamekw, argued that the power Hydro-Québec would export was “acquired unconstitutionally, without accommodation and compensation, from hydroelectric dams erected on their territory between 1911 and 2004.”
In its ruling, the BAPE said “it was not in its mandate to investigate the legitimacy of Quebec’s hydroelectric production and to take a position on this subject.”
In an exchange of documents with Hydro-Québec, the CER noted that it has the final word on whether the line goes ahead, and that the “federal Crown” has given the CER the mandate “to satisfy all obligations for consultation and accommodation of Aboriginal peoples.”
“Aboriginal groups that may be affected by the project are invited to participate in the process,” the CER wrote.
Hydro-Québec’s position is that it’s negotiated more than 40 agreements with Indigenous nations, including one with the Wemotaci Atikamekw, and that its power dams received all necessary authorizations, “in compliance with the legal framework applicable at the time.”
“Hydro-Québec understands the importance of land claims and territorial issues for the Indigenous communities,” said utility spokesperson Lynn St-Laurent in a written statement. “These matters are generally addressed in discussions or treaty negotiations between the federal and provincial governments and the relevant Indigenous communities or nations.”
Recently, however, Hydro-Québec agreed to buy 200 megawatts of electricity from the Apuiat wind farm on Quebec’s lower north shore, to be built and operated by a 50-50 joint venture consisting of Boralex Inc., a producer of alternative energy, and the Innu communities of Uashat mak Mani-utenam and Essipit.
Last year, the Innu Nation of Labrador launched a $4-billion lawsuit against Hydro-Québec for ecological and cultural damage caused by the construction of the Churchill Falls hydroelectric project in the late 1960s.
On several occasions, the Newfoundland and Labrador government has also tried — without success — to undo Hydro-Québec’s contract to buy power from Churchill Falls for 65 years at two-tenths of a cent per kilowatt hour.
In a 20-year contract, Massachusetts utilities will pay 5.9 cents U.S. a kilowatt hour, reducing electricity bills in the state by about four per cent.
Lawyer Matt McPherson, representing the Labrador Innu, said the matter has been taken to court because Hydro-Québec’s attitude has been, “We don’t think we’re going to talk to you, because we don’t have to.”
The Labrador Innu estimate that Hydro-Québec could rake in $150 billion in revenues by the end of the contract in 2041, selling Churchill Falls power to American customers at a much higher price. Hydro-Québec maintains that its export contracts are not associated with any particular power-generating station.
McPherson said the Innu court challenge “will take some time.”
Justice Jacques Viens was named by the Quebec government to examine how Indigenous people in the province are treated by public agencies, such as hospitals and the police.
He concluded they’ve been victims of “systemic discrimination,” and recommended that Quebec adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The federal government has proposed Bill C-15 to adopt the UN declaration.
Premier François Legault has said Quebec’s Indigenous Nations deserve recognition, but he fears the UN declaration would give them veto power over development projects.
An official acting for the Indigenous coalition noted that the Innu have been meeting with Quebec officials for 50 years, and the Atikamekw for 47 years — but, aside from “sandwiches without crusts,” there have been “zero” results.
Guy Lalouche, a member of the Wemotaci band council, said despite Supreme Court rulings affirming Indigenous rights, his Atikamekw band and other First Nations in Quebec are victims of “economic racism,” and while successive premiers have promised to correct the situation through treaties, “it’s not true.”
The Cree do have their own education and health-care systems, and are building capacity for more economic development, but there’s a growing poverty gap between the Atikamekw and their non-Indigenous neighbours, with high unemployment and social problems affecting Aboriginal youth, while Hydro-Québec makes huge profits from dams in unceded Aboriginal territory, Lalouche said.
“The status quo is unacceptable. We want to participate.”
But Lalouche said the Atikamekw have detected a glimmer of hope in a recent meeting with Hydro-Québec officials, who are proposing a discussion table with the Wemontaci band; the arrival of Sophie Brochu last year as the utility’s CEO, plus the sensitivity of American buyers to Indigenous issues, seems to have changed the context.
“We don’t want to live in poverty,” Lalouche said.
By Kevin Dougherty. Published on Apr 6, 2021 5:31pm