Hydro-Québec’s electricity production, Aboriginal culture rooted in a tangled past
By Zachary Matson
The scope of Hydro-Québec’s portfolio of dams and reservoirs is staggering. The projects have reshaped the social and natural landscape of northern Canada.
Reservoirs, many of which are in vast boreal forests more than 500 miles north of Montreal, dwarf the Adirondack Lakes. The largest reservoir in Quebec, the Caniapiscau Reservoir, covers 1,600 square miles, nearly four times the size of Lake Champlain.
Before the Caniapiscau River was dammed in the early 1980s, the original Caniapiscau Lake covered 180 square miles.
In the northern Quebec watershed of the La Grande River, Hydro-Quebec has 11 dams and eight impoundments, which cover a combined area of more than double the total protected wilderness area of the Adirondacks.
In 2005, during the creation of the Eastmain-1 reservoir on the La Grande River, Hydro-Quebec flooded 113 square miles of mature forest, an area larger than Pharaoh Lake Wilderness, and 70 square miles of wetlands, according to a study. of 2018.
In total, the reservoirs under Hydro-Québec’s control are large enough to cover an area greater than the more than 6 million acres of Adirondack Park, exceeding a combined area of 10,000 square miles. The “Green Battery of North America” dwarfs the park’s footprint in the Adirondacks.
In the neighboring province of Labrador, where Hydro-Quebec has entered into a long-term purchase agreement for the energy produced at the Churchill Falls generating station, the Smallwood reservoir covers more than 2,500 square miles, or 55 times the size of the Lake George. The diversion of the Grand River in Labrador chokes the water up to Grand Falls, also known as Churchill Falls, reducing the monumental waterfall to a trickle and leaving behind a deep channel carved into the rock by an ancient force erosive.
Roberta Frampton Benefiel, the Grand Riverkeeper, a non-profit organization set up to protect the river, also known as the Churchill River, said she was lucky enough to see the falls “in most of her splendor”.
“They had to fix one of the levees in a few places and they opened the gates and allowed the river to flow back – some of it, not all of it – to flow back over the falls,” Benefiel said from his home. . in Labrador. ” It was fabulous. There’s a big rainbow that forms just over the whole valley as the water flows, but about two-thirds of the water was going down, and one side of the rock face was right there.
The Smallwood Reservoir, like other Canadian impoundments, flooded areas of Indigenous lands, including Innu travel routes and hunting camps and habitats for salmon, beaver and cariboo – all critical to Innu life – poisoning fish with methylmercury. Families who had lived in the area for generations lost their canoes, traps and other tools. Ancestral burial sites were drowned. The Innu Nation, which in 2020 filed a $4 billion claim against Hydro-Quebec in Canadian courts, was never consulted.
“Our elders have suffered,” said the great Innu chief Etienne Rich at the time. “They lost so much. We feel that loss today, we inherited that loss. It’s time to fix it. »
A few days later, Innu lawyers submitted comments to New York officials on the nation’s opposition to the proposed Champlain Hudson Power Express project.
“It would be difficult to overstate the deep anger, dismay and sadness the Innu feel over the flooding of the Meshikamau region and the destruction,” the nation said.
The lawyers highlighted New York’s commitment to addressing historic harms committed against marginalized communities in its climate law.
“The project of building fair and environmentally friendly electricity and distribution systems cannot be built on underlying injustices,” they argued.
Other Indigenous leaders in Canada have spoken out against the CHPE.
Savanna McGregor, Acting Grand Chief of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council, highlighted “the damage caused by Hydro-Quebec to our unceded ancestral territory.”
“There’s a lot at stake,” McGregor wrote. “The enduring violation of our rights by Hydro-Quebec and the Government of Quebec is such that our First Nations are slowly being destroyed.
Hydro-Québec has sought to improve its relationship with Indigenous communities by becoming co-owner of the new transmission line that will connect CHPE to its existing network with the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake. Grand Chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer, in supportive comments submitted to the SPC, noted the concerns of other Indigenous groups.
READ: Learn more about the Champlain Hudson Power Express project
“While these complaints should clearly be directed to the relevant authorities, it is important to stress that the hydroelectric facilities in question were not built as part of the CHPE project. The only new infrastructure to be built is the Hertel line [connecting CHPE to Hydro-Quebec’s network]. Any further discussion of claims should be handled separately from this project,” Sky-Deer wrote.
Hydro-Quebec spokeswoman Lynn St-Laurent noted in a statement that the entire history of the treatment of Indigenous peoples in North America is “far from perfect” and pointed to some of the agreements of the company to address the concerns of indigenous communities and develop renewable projects in tandem.
“One of Hydro-Québec’s top priorities is to maintain long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with the Indigenous communities and nations where we operate,” said Mr. St-Laurent.