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.