REGION — “Too often or for too long people believe that the Indian were dead,” Counsellor Patrick Boivin of the Wemotaci community, part of the Atikamekw First Nation, said during a Zoom interview from his home located in the Wemotaci reservation about 180 miles northeast of Québec City, Canada.

Boivin is speaking about the development of hydropower — damning, diverting rivers, erecting power lines, operating reservoirs and hydroelectric plants — which continues to take place on ancestral lands without the consent of the Wemotaci. This development directly affects the indigenous peoples’ traditional, nomadic hunting and trapping livelihoods.

The Wemotaci have a strong oral tradition and since the 1930s, passed down stories have included the horrors of homes being flooded without any warning and disoriented trappers perishing in waterways they once knew like the backs of their hands as the Shawinigan Water & Power Company (SWPC) built the Rapide-Blanc Reservoir.

Hydropower enterprises have continued in First Nation territories throughout the Province of Québec as private electric power companies became absorbed by Hydro-Québec (HQ), a government-owned public utility company since 1963.

For Boivin, these once private enterprises that are now provincial activities, reflect an attitude that his people no longer exist, that they have been for all intents  and purposes, erased.

There are now nine hydropower facilities operated by HQ on Wemotaci territory, La Trenche, La Tuque, Beaumont, Rocher-de-Grand-Mère, Rapide-Blanc, Shawinigan-2, Shawinigan-3, La Gabelle, Grand-Mère which combined have a 1,892 Megawatt capacity.

HQ obtained no prior agreement before building or taking over the operations of facilities on Wemotaci territory. Instead, HQ engaged in piecemeal impact benefit agreements (IBAs) in 2002 which provides a fraction of compensation based on two generating stations, Chute Allard and Rapide-des-Coeurs on the St-Maurice River.

“The agreement sets out the funding of economic and community development initiatives, traditional activities, and the creation of a joint monitoring committee,” HQ spokesperson St-Laurent said in an email. “It also includes provisions setting the working collaboration between HQ and the Atikamekw of Wemotaci for the identification of archeological and burial sites, as well as for environmental studies regarding the projects.”

For Boivin, who has only known one Wemotaci community member to be hired by HQ in his lifetime, and who witnesses the every day poverty in his community while Québec profits on their resources, these two IBAs simply are not enough.

The nine facilities on Wemotaci land will contribute to the Appalaches-Maine Interconnection, more commonly known as the New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) in the U.S., a project that will bring HQ hydropower from Québec through Maine via high-transmission lines to primarily provide Massachusetts with energy.

The Wemotaci have partnered with other indigenous communities to form the Anishnabe-Atikamekw-Innu Coalition and are asserting that based on the capacity of facilities on their lands, 36% of the power exported through the NECEC would be stolen. The coalition is also asserting that the NECEC would greatly contribute to decades of systemic racism imposed by the provincial government of Québec.

Included in the Coalition’s brief to the Canadian Energy Regulator (CER), whose commission has yet to approve HQ’s portion of the NECEC project, a table with the title “a sad balance sheet” outlines five First Nation communities’ socioeconomic well-being compared to the overall province of Québec.

 

A SAD BALANCE SHEET (SOCIETY)

PESSAMIT WEMOTACI PIKOGAN LAC SIMON KITCISAKIK Québec (overall)
UNEMPLOYMENT RATE

24%

29%

17%

29%

20%

7%

MEDIAN EMPLOYMENT INCOME

$16,416

$11,168

$16,448

$12,288

$22,720

$41,286

HOUSING REQUIRING MAJOR REPAIRS

31%

51%

34%

43%

25%

7.5%

LEVEL OF EDUCATION LOWER THAN SECONDARY EDUCATION

53%

52%

48%

66%

54%

11%

COMPARATIVE WELL-BEING INDEX

74%

61%

80%

59%

67%

100%

PERCENTAGE OF REVENUE FROM GOVERNMENT TRANSFERS

35.8%

37.7%

32.6%

45.9%

32.5%

15.6%

A SAD BALANCE SHEET (HEALTH)

PREVALENCE

FIRST NATIONS OF Québec ALL OF Québec
OBESITY

42%

+/-25%

DIABETES

8% (18-34 years)

22% (35-64)

40% (seniors)

7.4% (population 12 years +)

CARDIOVASCULAR ILLNESSES

22% (population 18 years+)

5.4% (population 12 years +)

SUICIDE RATE

5 to 7 times higher

LIFE EXPECTANCY

73 years (men)

78 years (women)

78 years (men)

83 years (women)

Boivin attributes the Wemotaci’s high unemployment rate and low median income to the fact that they have had little to no opportunity to participate in the economy. He iterated that this is because HQ and the provincial government continue to exert their presence on resources that the Wemotaci depend on without offering an appropriate partnership.

For Boivin, this communicates the sentiment of ‘erasing the Indian,’ a sentiment that Mainers may have to confront as Penobscot Chief Kirk E. Francis, the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) and the Sierra Club Maine are calling for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

According to the American Bar Association, an EIA is a report “mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), to assess the potential impact of actions ‘significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.’” An EIA determines a proposed project’s effects on physical, cultural and human environments and the study does not halt at the border unlike the Corps’ Environmental Assessment (EA).

The Corps released their EA on the NECEC on January 14 and the following day, the Department of Energy (DOE) issued the project its Presidential Permit. This one-day turnaround reflected a broken promise by the DOE to Senator Susan Collins to provide a 30-day public comment on the EA.

“The Environmental Impact Statement is now in the hands of the court. Throughout the permitting process for the CMP corridor, Senator Collins supported efforts to ensure the voices of Maine residents were heard,” Collins’ spokesperson Christopher Knight wrote in an email.

“In response to a letter Senator Collins sent in October 2019 requesting information on the federal environmental permitting, the Department of Energy pledged to make a draft environmental assessment report available for public comment for 30 days before reaching a final decision. Although the agency has linked comments online, Senator Collins believes the Department of Energy should have followed through on a public comment process because it would have provided an opportunity for more Mainers to give feedback on the project.”

The parent company of NECEC LLC and Central Maine Power is Avangrid, an organization part of the Spanish-owned electric utility company Iberdrola and remains confident in moving forward with construction on the corridor project.

“To date, the NECEC has received all major permits and overlapping reviews by state and federal regulators have all determined that this project will increase the supply of clean power available to Maine and New England by utilizing excess capacity from existing hydropower facilities,” CEO/President of NECEC LLC Thorn Dickinson wrote in an email.

“The fact that the project has successfully passed through three years of regulatory approvals at every level of government gives us and our partner HQ a high level of confidence in the ability for the project to achieve additional approvals on the Canadian side.  The project construction timeline has always contemplated that the work would start on the US side first followed by permitting and approval on the Canadian side and that is the plan we are executing.”

With opposition on both sides of the border and HQ still without their national permit from the CER, Avangrid could be building a corridor to nowhere said Tom Saviello the lead petitioner against the NECEC project.

Saviello submitted 95,000 petition signatures to the Secretary of State on Jan. 21, of which 80,000 were accepted, that would block the NECEC corridor project by default. The petition is asking that the Maine Legislature must approve any high-impact transmission lines through a two thirds majority vote and that this requirement would be retroactive by six years.

“They could argue that you can’t be retroactive and that’s why they’re running around putting up a bunch of poles right now randomly; there’s no plan, randomly they’re putting the poles up so they can say ‘we have a vested interest,’ Saviello said. “And they’re trying to send a message to Maine people, this is a done deal. I’m very surprised they haven’t gone in and put all of the poles up.” 

The NECEC project is still waiting for site plan approvals from individual towns in Maine as well to erect high-transmission lines.

Meanwhile, the First Nation Coalition in Québec is waiting for the CER’s decision on HQ’s portion of the corridor project which is anticipated to be issued in late spring.

 

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