by Ken Picard
More than a dozen protesters from Quebec's Innu First Nation are due to arrive in Vermont this weekend to protest the Conference of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers, being held in Burlington. They are protesting against the construction of a new hydroelectric dam on the Romaine River by Hydro-Québec, which they say would destroy their entire way of life. Vermont purchases the vast majority of its power from the Canadian utility giant and Gov. Peter Shumlin currently chairs the New England Governors' Conference.
This new dam is but one aspect of a much larger development project in the region known as Plan Nord. According to the Québec government's official website, Plan Nord is "one of the biggest economic, social and environmental projects in our time." The 25-year, $80 billion project will create or consolidate an average of 20,000 jobs per year, the Québec government says.
The Innu people — not to be confused with Canada's Inuit people — come from the community of Mani-Utenam, near the city of Sept Iles. They are an indigenous population from northeastern Quebec and Labrador who claim they have never ceded their rights to the land to the Québec or Canadian governments.
In March of 2012, members of the Mani-Utenam community, which numbers roughly 4000 people, erected a blockade along Québec's Highway 138, the main artery along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. The blockade was a protest against Plan Nord and dams being built along the Romaine River, about two to three hours northeast of their community. Highway 138 is the only way, except by boat, to access the inland areas along the north shore. It's also the only road into this part of Québec, and facilitates most of the industrial development that happens in this region.
Among the activists coming to Vermont is Elyse Vollant, an Innu grandmother who in June was arrested at the blockade, along with several others from the community. After the blockade was removed by dozens of riot police and Surete du Québec (Quebec state police), the Innu erected an encampment alongside 138.
Many Innu feel that the Charest government has ignored their concerns and traditional right to the land. While some tribal councils have signed on to the Romaine project, other Innu view these councils as colonial forms of government that were set up by the Québec government without much consent from Innu decades ago.
According to Vermont activists working with the Innu, Mani-Utenam has not signed any agreements around the Romaine project. However, Hydro-Québec has started clear cutting swaths of forest near their community for the transmission lines that will will carry power from the dams. For more on the Innu protests from earlier this year, check out this piece by Alexis Lathem in Toward Freedom.
Seven Days spoke with Vollant last weekend by phone in advance of her trip to Burlington. (French interpretation courtesy of Andrew Simon.)
SEVEN DAYS: Under Canadian law, do the Innu people have any legal rights or say over how this land will be used?
ELYSE VOLLANT: In general, First Nations have the right to a say over what happens in their territory. The communities affected held two referenda and said no to the dam being constructed. Hydro-Quebec, even after the referenda, has continued their construction work, putting in pylons for the dam... We have a right to determine what goes on in our territory and Hydro-Québec is not really listening to us when they continue the construction.
SD: Are the Innu people divided over the Plan Nord or are they speaking with one voice on the project?
EV: The Innu people are very divided. There are people who are very much against it and are trying to keep the territory intact for future generations. There are other people who are willing to consider it for a certain price. And then there are other people who are very much in favor of it because of the development it will bring. The tribal councils are very corrupt. Lots of them have said they're against Plan Nord but then went and signed with various companies to go ahead with the construction. When we asked where the money went [from those contracts], they've said, "Oh, we don't have any more money." So, we are very curious where the money has disappeared to.
SD: What kind of destruction has already taken place as a result of Hydro-Quebec's work?
EV: The pylons that they put in for the dam have already made animals disappear and run away. They have cleared the land. We did a march along the river and we noticed both how beautiful it is and how much has been destroyed. Why would they want to destroy this beautiful land?
SD: Obviously, Vermonters cannot vote or have much influence over the Canadian or provincial government. What do you hope Vermonters can do to help further your cause?
EV: Whether it's in Canada or the United States or Europe, we want people to preserve the environment for future generations. People need to wake up and see what's going on and take care of the land for their children and grandchildren — and ours.
SD: Talk about the significance of this area. Are there sacred areas that will be destroyed?
EV: The whole land is in danger. You cannot live as an Innu if the land is destroyed. That's why we're fighting this fight. Our way of life is connected to the land.
SD: How do the non-indigenous Québecois feel about this project?
EV: We walked from Mani-Utenam to Montréal and we encountered a lot of Québecois who are against the Plan Nord and want to preserve the environment, whether it's in our land or in the city.
SD: Is the Charest government's position different from the previous government's?
EV: Charest has gone to Europe and elsewhere and said that the Innu were for the Plan Nord. We are circulating a petition to show how many people in our Nation are against it. I feel that — whether it's our Nation, the students in Montreal or other parts of Quebec — Charest is not paying attention to what the people want.
SD: Do you feel your message will be well-received in Vermont, which receives quite a lot of its electricity from Hydro-Quebec?
EV: Even though some people [in Vermont] might be against what we're saying, I think people will support our desire to protect the land for future generations.
SD: Are you prepared to continue with civil disobedience and perhaps even get arrested to stop the construction from going ahead?
EV: Certainly there will be more civil disobedience because it's the only thing that makes [Hydro-Québec] see us. When we do blockades and speak up, that's when they come and talk to us.
A Community dinner and Alternative Voices presentation highlighting Innu resistance to Hydro-Québec and Plan Nord is scheduled for Sunday, July 29, from 6-9 pm at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Burlington.
Photos courtesy of Will Bennington at Red Clover Climate Justice.