PBI and the Innu’s historic opposition to the SM-3 hydroelectric dam in Nitassinan
In an April 1993 PBI-Canada newsletter, Steve Molnar wrote, “Rivers play an important role in the Innu lifestyle by providing salmon, a staple of the Innu diet. Hydro-Quebec, a government owned corporation of the province, has already built 19 dams in Nitassinan and plans to build one more on the Sainte-Marguerite River.”
Nitassinan (which means “our land”) refers to the ancestral homeland of the Innu, an Indigenous people of eastern Quebec and Labrador.
Molnar highlights, “The $2 billion Sainte-Marguerite III project would divert two tributaries of the Moise River and drastically reduce the flow at the confluence of the Moise, Ste Marguerite and St. Lawrence Rivers, greatly impacting the annual salmon run.”
That article notes that 80 per cent of the 1,000 people in each of the communities of Uashat and Maliotenam were opposed to the hydroelectric project.
It then explains, “In October 1992, the community of Maliotenam voted to separate from the Uashat reserve and form its own band. A group called the Coalition for Nitassinan, based in Maliotenam, favors a more traditional form of government and opposes the dam.”
But, as the article also notes, the elected tribal leader Elie-Jacques Jourdain opposed the separation of the two communities and supported continuing negotiations with Hydro Quebec for $800 million in compensation in exchange for Innu land titles that were blocking the construction of the dam.
On December 7, 1992, the Coalition for Nitassinan asked Peace Brigades International to provide observers for a barricade it was setting up in Maliotenam. It also asked PBI to escort Coalition spokesperson Gilbert Pilot when he spoke at the United Nations in New York and upon his return to the community of Maliotenam.
The article notes, “Shots fired at Pilot’s house a few weeks earlier caused some concern that he might be in some danger on his return to the reserve.”
Two PBI volunteers maintained a 24 hour a day presence at the barricade that was set up between December 12 and December 16, 1992.
Almost 27 years later, what’s the status of this situation?
In April 1994, Hydro-Quebec reached an agreement with Uashat-Maliotenam to pay them $66 million over a 50-year period.
In July 1994, The Nation reported, “The Innu of Mani-Utenam split down the middle in [a referendum on the Sainte-Marguerite dam], with 53 per cent voting in favour of the agreement and 47 per cent against. …Members of Uashat voted 70 per cent in favour of the agreement, while Maliotenam was two-thirds against.”
This article adds, “The two communities held a referendum in Oct. 1992 to split into two separate bands. Maliotenam voted 56 per cent in favour of this idea, but the Band Council refused to implement the proposal. For this reason, many Innu in Maliotenam say the vote on the SM-3 agreement is invalid.”
The Sainte-Marguerite 3 hydroelectric project (SM-3), which includes the Denis-Perron dam, was built and began producing power in 2007.
In May 2018, CBC reported, “Hydro-Québec wishes to install a third turbine generator group at Centrale Sainte-Marguerite 3 (SM-3), north of Sept-Îles. Negotiations are underway with the Innu Council of Uashat-Maliotenam to offer financial compensation.”
This history also brings to mind the Lower Churchill Project that involves two large hydroelectric dams on the Grand River, including a dam at Muskrat Falls.
The Independent has reported, “Muskrat Falls resides on the traditional Innu lands of Nitassinan. The Inuit of Southern Labrador also claim the land around Muskrat Falls as their traditional territory.”
On August 8, APTN reported, “The Nunatsiavut Government says the reservoir flooding now underway at the Muskrat Falls hydro project in Labrador leaves Inuit vulnerable to physical and cultural harm associated with anticipated increases in methylmercury contamination of fish, seal and other traditional foods.”
And what of Gilbert Pilot who led the opposition to the SM-3 project?
In August 2019, CBC reported, “The [68-year-old] activist’s soul still vibrates. …Even [after suffering a stroke], the man carries with him an anger that has not diminished with the years. The use of humor also remains stable over time. A way, shared by many Innu, to take a sniff of the bad surprises that life reserves.”
He also recently co-authored this book that calls for negotiations between Canada, Quebec and Innu peoples for Innu self-government.
For more on our current work, please see PBI-Honduras and PBI-Guatemala accompany Indigenous communities opposed to dams.