On the morning of June 10th, a group of Innu people from the community of ManiUtenam, near the Quebec City of Sept Isle, set out on a 360 kilometer march towards a Hydro Quebec dam construction site on the Romaine River. Dressed in florescent vests, they departed from an encampment at the entrance to the reserve, beside Route 138, the only major road in the region, where the group has maintained a continual protest since the end of April.
Impossible to miss as vehicles pass along the route, the encampment strikingly asserts the presence of the Innu –who have been consistently ignored by governments and developers as they continue to encroach upon Innu territory.
The Innu people (not to be confused with the Inuit) are the indigenous people of the northeastern part of what is today called Quebec and Labrador. To the Innu, this is Nitassinan, “our land”, which they have never ceded to Quebec or to Canada. Having escaped the predations of agricultural and industrial encroachment for centuries, the Innu were not settled onto reserves until the 1960s – most of them located at the mouths of the rivers emptying into the Gulf of St Lawrence – at the same time that the provincially owned utility, Hydro Quebec, began to construct a series of large dams in Nitassinan, effectively ending a way of life. The dams destroyed the salmon, flooded forested valleys, and paved the way for the industrialization of the Innu homeland.
“We demand to be recognized,” reads a hand-scrawled sign at the site. Plumes of woods moke rise from small canvas – and spruce- pole tents (the style of tent used by the Innu when they are in the forest) clustered around a large structure called a chapetoine, traditionally used for ceremonies and councils. Children play in the sand beneath overhanging banners that read (in French), “No Plan Nord! We want a Plan Innu!” and “Protect the Romaine River!”
The $8 billion Romaine Complex –involving four large hydroelectric stations, dikes, spillways, canals, and 279 sq kilometers of reservoir – marks the first phase of Quebec’s multi-billion dollar Plan Nord, a massive soviet-style 25-year scheme to industrialize the remote region north of the 49th parallel. A territory twice the size of France, which proponents themselves boast is “the largest intact ecosystem in the world,” belongs entirely to First Nation’s peoples.
“We were not consulted,” said Elyse Vollant, speaking in French, a mother of eight children from Mani Utenam, who has been living in the encampment since April. “The government says the First Nations have approved the Plan Nord but we have not. This is a violation of our rights.”
This is the first organized opposition coming from First Nations communities to Hydro Quebec since the 1990s, when the James Bay Cree campaigned to stop the massive Great Whale project, at the same time that the Innu of ManiUtenam opposed Hydro Quebec’s St. Marguerite 3 (SM3) project. The Great Whale project was cancelled in 1994, but the SM3 project was built.
Protests began in March, when a group of Innu blockaded the highway to disrupt supplies to the Hydro Quebec construction site, after Hydro Quebec began to illegally install its transmission lines associated with Romaine complex. The towers would pass directly through the Innu’s ancestral lands, which have never been ceded to Quebec.
In two community-wide referenda, the community of Uashat/ ManiUtenam voted down a compensation package of $125 million offered in exchange for their consent to the project. Hydro Quebec is nevertheless proceeding to construct the lines – clearing swaths of forest for the corridor – in the absence of an agreement from the community.
After blockading the route and disrupting work on the complex for four days, the Quebec police arrived on March 9 in riot gear to break up the protest. Thirteen people were arrested, including Elyse Vollant. After the police broke up the blockade, and the protesters were placed under an injunction, prohibiting their assembly near the road, they “were not sure what to do,” Vollant explained. “My father told me not to be afraid of the injunction. He said we should continue to defend Nitassinan.”
A group of women then decided to carry out a long march – 900 kilometers to Montreal. Some 40-plus Innu women arrived in Montreal on April 22, in time for the Earth day festivities.
“We are doing this for our children,” Vollant said. “In the future, there will be no more trees, no more animals, no more fish. Everything will be polluted. What will be left for our children? What kind of a life will they have?”
On June 16, after walking for six days, the marchers arrived at the construction site near the Romaine River where they were joined by Innuat from Ekuanit shit and Natasquan, the two closest communities to the Romaine River, and Uashat/ManiUtenam, as well as by supporters from the Quebecois communities in the region. Some fifty people formed a human chain before the entrance to the site, where they held their ground for eleven hours.
According to Chris Scott with the Romaine Alliance, an environmental group that is working to protect the river, the first vehicle to attempt to pass was a Hydro Quebec tour bus. The tourists were “dumbfounded” at the sight of a large group of Innu people, some dressed in traditional clothing, singing and chanting in the road. A group of children, both Innu and Quebcois, held a large colorful banner that read (in French): “Protect the Romaine River!”
“After fifteen minutes they were allowed to pass,” Scott said, “but not without an appreciation for the fact that – contrary to what one hears – there is not unanimous approval for this project, neither among the Innu nor the whites.”
Scott told the visitors to “take a good look at the Grandes Chutes, because they will not be here once the dam is built. Neither will the salmon beds at the base of the falls.”
The Grandes Chutes is the largest and most spectacular waterfall on the river. Once the Romaine 1 hydroelectric station is built, directly over the site of the falls, the river behind the dam will be stored in a reservoir, then diverted around the falls. Only a trickle of water will pass, where once a volume of white water second only to Niagara crashed over a precipice, in a tempestuous display vapor and spume. This summer, the salmon returning from their two-year sojourn at sea will spawn in the gravel beds below the falls for the last time.
The Romaine River – one of the longest in Quebec – is one of the last wild Atlantic salmon rivers that has not been dammed. The Innu have fished the Romaine River salmon, reputed to be some of the biggest in the world, for millennia. Of the sixteen rivers in Quebec listed as large rivers, the Romaine is the fourteenth to be dammed. The Romaine complex will be the fifteenth hydro-complex in Nitassinan, the Innu homeland, where already the landscape– wherever there are dams- is dominated by armadas of massive 740 kv powerlines, carrying power from the once mighty rivers that crisscross the mountainous eastern seaboard before they flow into the Atlantic Ocean.
The Plan Nord calls for developing 3,500 MW of additional hydroelectric energy (to add to the staggering 47,000 MW already produced by a province with a population of 7.5 million), including the Romaine complex. Hydro complexes are also planned for the Magpie and Petit-Mecatina Rivers in the region.
As they passed through Innu communities along the way, the group circulated a petition demanding a halt to the Plan Nord, a settlement of the Innu’s legal claims against the province of Quebec, complete information on the effects and impacts of the Plan, and a comprehensive consultation with all members of the Innu nation. The signatures will be presented to the Quebec General Assembly.
After their demonstration at the entrance to the Romaine construction site, the Innu group returned to the encampment by the highway. They continue to gather in the evenings under the canopy of the chapetoine, while they plan more actions for the coming months. At night they sleep on its fragrant carpet of spruce boughs.
“People are rising up,” said Vollant. “The Innu are going to come together to oppose the Plan Nord. People from the outside will join us. It’s not just the Innu who are affected – all human beings depend upon nature. We are all going to come together.”