Wait Forty Years: Innu Women’s Resistance to Plan Nord

By Denise Jourdain

This FUSE article from issue 36-3 is available full-text online for your reading pleasure. If you like what you read, please consider subscribing to FUSE or making a one-time donation

Good evening, everyone. I am Ishkueu. I am part of the community of Uashat mak Mani-Utenam of the Innu Nation. I have five children, two grandsons. My parents have passed away — my father, my mother. I was not raised on the land, nor have I spent much time there, so I am not a keeper of traditional knowledge. When my parents married, my mother asked my father to never take us into the bush. For my mother, living in the bush was misery. Growing up, if the hunt was not good, her family would sometimes have to go for four or five days without food. I do not resent my mother’s decision; she did not want us to suffer as she had.

I listened to my father speak about his territory, about growing up on his family’s land. When he spoke to us of this, his eyes would be full of tears, and from these stories I got to know the link that ties him to his land. Eventually, I came to believe that in order to defend the land, you must be connected to it. My father’s family’s territory is difficult to access; under normal conditions, you have to take a hydroplane or a helicopter, or in the winter you can travel by skidoo. One day, when they flooded the Sainte-Marguerite River, [1] my father asked us to come with him out onto his territory. We went up the river in a canoe, and he spoke to us about the places he had spent time during his childhood.

He paused while he told his stories, and admired the beauty of the mountain, the pines, the trees, the riverbank. Listening to him and observing what he was describing, I could feel how much he loved the land. While traveling upriver, he suddenly stopped the motor and began to paddle instead. I thought to myself: “This is going to be something important; he’s going to tell a story that belongs to his family.” I waited and watched him paddle and finally he said, “Look over the side of the canoe.” When I looked, I saw the top of a tree. All the pines had been flooded, covered up in water. He said, “I can’t use the motor because the tree tops could break the propeller.” The flooded river must have been a half kilometre wide, and we were right in the middle of it, where it was very deep. I was shocked to see the treetop—it was as if she was speaking to me, saying, “I am alive, even if I’ve drowned, I am alive.” This is how I started to really understand the link that connects us to the land. I connect this to all of the other questions about territory that are quite commonly asked these days in our community when we speak about the Plan Nord.

Some of the Innu of the Lower North Shore had signed an agreement with Hydro-Québec. [2] I wondered, “Why develop facilities up north on the river, all the way at the edge of the province, when the people who need the electricity are all in the south?” I decided to learn more about the Plan Nord, and when I saw all the potential mine sites, I quickly understood that the Romaine River would be used to enrich the mining companies, who would establish themselves on our territory. Hydro-Québec showed up in our community with an offer of $80 million, plus $45 million in construction contracts and jobs. [3] When money has never been part of your culture, you don’t know much about the value of the money, and you think $80 million sounds like a lot.

It’s important to understand that the payment wasn’t just for the transmission lines that would run through our territory, [4] but also for reparations based on past use of our land, and it also required us to agree that we wouldn’t obstruct any of Hydro-Québec’s future development plans. To raise awareness in my community about the value of this agreement, I did the math. $80 million over fifty years is $1.6 million per year, and for a big community with 3,500 members, that works out to $457.00 per person per year. $457.00 per year divided by 365 days means that $1.25 per member per day is the price that Hydro-Québec would pay us for the right to operate mines that will destroy our territory. I asked myself, “Is that really the value that Hydro-Québec places on the water I will drink, the air I will breathe? $1.25 per day?” I opposed the offer.

The result of the first referendum was 59% “no.” From there, Hydro-Québec held a second referendum, proposing a new offer, what they called a new nation-to-nation relation. My worry was that if the people of my community accepted Hydro-Québec’s offer, with the signature of the Quebec government, it would be as if we had completely signed over our title, our rights, our identity —everything we are as Innus. The result of the second referendum was 54% “no.” [5] But Hydro-Québec continued their work anyway, against the will of my community.

As a nation, if we try to defend our territory using Quebecois laws, we find that we cannot apply them, because these laws were founded on Quebec’s own values and customs and are not compatible with our own. At the federal level, there have been rulings that favored Indigenous land rights, but there is always some other ruling that renders them ineffective. Through the justice system, it is always going to be a merry-go-round. For my community, the negotiations started in the 1990s, and the situation is still the same. Quebec does not recognize our rights, and neither does the country.

We live with social problems, and then there is the Plan Nord. When you live in a community that has social problems, you want to stand up and help your community, you want to blockade. It’s been many years now that I’ve been contributing to strikes, demonstrations and blockades. It’s been almost fifty years that I’ve been living these struggles, participating in these actions.

When we hiked this morning, when we got in the canoe, we told ourselves, “We are mothers, grandmothers,” and the canoe represented our ancestors, their ancestral lives. Tonight we are presented as women who have been in prison. [6] And we, the generation to which the Plan Nord has been presented, we must take our position towards the Plan Nord. It is as if we are holding at arm’s length the future of an entire community. I’d like to address the people of my community, to ask them to build a better world for their children, our children, and the generations to come. Help them to be real Innus, connect to the territory and possess ancestral knowledge. We will not be able to raise our children on the Plan Nord.

Whenever anyone speaks about the Plan Nord, territory, ancestral rights, the eyes of children haunt me. Are we going to leave fifty more years of struggle for the next generation? If we do not act now to preserve the future for our children and refuse the Plan Nord, it will destroy our territory. The cost to the livelihood of our planet will be too high. If I were to make one special request to the Quebecois people, it would be this: “Our people have been patient for forty years. Can I ask you to wait another forty years? Wait forty years before you go ahead with Plan Nord, and maybe between now and then, you will change your mind, and decide to become guardians of the earth.”

EDITORIAL NOTES:

[1] Hydro-Québec began construction of the Sainte-Marguerite 3 (SM3) reservoir in 1998, flooding the river.

[2] In 1994, the community of Uashat-Maliotenam signed the Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam Agreement, which allowed Hydro-Québec to begin development on SM3.

[3] In January 2011, Hydro-Québec made this offer, up from its original offer of $2 million. Before going ahead, the agreement was the subject of two referenda, held in March and April 2011. See Rhéal Ségquin, “Innu reach deal with Hydro-Québec on $6.5-billion project,” The Globe and Mail (24 January 2011; online).

[4] James O’Reilly’s bid for a permanent injunction against the Romaine project was largely focused on the location of the transmission lines. See Marianne White, “Quebec Innu wage battle to halt huge hydroelectric project,” National Post (4 September 2009; online).

[5] The two referenda were held in 2011 in Uashat and Mani-Utenam, asking if the communities would allow transmission lines from the dams to be built across their territory. See Aaron Lakoff, “Plan Nord Be Dammed! Innu reject Quebec government’s ‘North for all’ plan,” The Dominion (17 January 2013; online).

[6] In late March 2012, Denise Jourdain and thirteen other women from Uashat mak Mani-Utenam left their home community to make the 900-km march to Montreal to protest the Plan Nord. Jourdain and two others were arrested at a blockade in March 2012. See Lakoff 2013.

This Short FUSE was adapted from a talk given at Concordia University in Montreal on 28 September 2013. Transcribed and translated by Gina Badger. Thanks to Laura Martinez (translation support) and Aaron Lakoff (fact checking).

Denise Jourdain is a member of the Innu community of Uashat mak Mani-utenam. She is an Innu-aimun language teacher at Johnny Pilot elementary school. She is a direct descendant of the Vachon and Jourdain families, who fought to maintain their land rights in the 1950s, defying both governmental and religious authorities.

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