Making Contact radio: Dam Shame- Rivers and Resistance

The Romaine River in northern Quebec
The Romaine River in northern Quebec

Making Contact - the National Radio Project
January 22, 2013

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As we look for a solution to global energy problems and a way out of the climate crisis- some are turning to dams and hydroelectric power as a source of “green” energy. But at what cost? Massive dams are being built and considered all over the world, despite mounting concern over their economic, environmental and human impacts. On this edition, we’ll take a closer look at the damage caused by hydropower projects, and we’ll visit a community trying to keep their culture and homeland free from the destructive influence of river dams.

See below for the script to Plan NORD.


Derrick Jensen, author; Jason Rainey, International Rivers executive director; Shanet Pilot, Pishu Pilot, Denise Jourdain and Elyse Vollant, Innu activists; Marie Louise Andre Mackenzie, Innu elder; Gary Sutherland, HydroQuebec spokesperson; Chris Scott, l’Alliance Romaine activist;

AARON LAKOFF: It’s just before Christmas, and I’m on the reserve of Mani-utenam, an Innu aboriginal reservation located about 600 miles north-east of Montreal, where the mouth of the St-Laurence seaway meets the Atlantic ocean. The reserve, home to around 1100 people, is a tight-knit community bustling with activity. Children are running around playing with husky dogs. In some ways, it is a community like any other small Canadian town – the people here love hockey, donuts, and country music.

But the Innu of Uashat and Mani-utenam, have also been engaged in a long, arduous struggle against development projects which they say attack their culture and way of life. A major part of THAT development is being done in the name of clean, “green” energy, as Elyse Vollant explains

ELYSE VOLLANT: Surely when they speak of ‘green energy’, it’s not green energy, because first they’re going to destroy the river with dams. And in the river there are often salmon and other fish. It’s other animals who will be destroyed by this too. And to get to the river, they will have to cut trees. What is this ‘green energy’ when you start to destroy everywhere – trees, rivers, animals. This is not green energy.”

AARON LAKOFF: Dams are a major part of the Plan Nord, a 25 year project to exploit the natural reserouces in Quebec’s northern regions, and sell them to the rest of the province, and even abroad.The Quebec government says the project will bring $80 billion in investments and create 20 thousand jobs.

CHAREST CAMPAIGN AD: As Premier of Quebec, I believe in our social program. I believe in our healthcare system, in our education system, and in the support we give to families. Because I believe in all of this, I also know that we need an economy that is able to support our healthcare system, our education system, and families. That’s why the Plan Nord as a wealth creation project is so important for the future of our social programs.”

AARON LAKOFF: That was a TV election ad for Jean Charest, the Premier of Quebec between 2003 and 2012, who spearheaded the Plan Nord. Already, construction has begun on a series of massive dams along the Romaine river. The largest of the 4 dams will be over 350 feet high.

Gary Sutherland: The Romaine complex is located on the Romaine river, which is on the north shore of the St-Laurence. The complex is 4 generating stations with reservoirs. It has a total annual output of about 8 terra-watt hours.

AARON LAKOFF: Gary Sutherland is a spokesperson for Hydro Quebec in Montreal.

GARY SUTHERLAND: Just to maybe put that into perspective, 8 terra-watt hours is pretty much the energy which is used by about 470 thousand average Quebec households. In terms of advantages, this is a clean, renewable energy source. Hydro power is a reliable source of energy, it’s one that we can use when it’s associated with reservoirs to respond to demand. In electricity, when there’s demand, it has to be met… immediately.”

AARON LAKOFF Under the Plan Nord, the Quebec government is hoping to become a world leader in so-called clean, “green” energy. But many are concerned that the project is anything but clean

CHRIS SCOTT: It’s a huge, dirty project.

AARON LAKOFF Chris Scott is an environmental activist with l’Alliance Romaine

CHRIS SCOTT: It’s also a project that will be draining the river, flooding huge amounts of boreal forest, but also it creates a reservoir and at certain points where they want to create the electricity, they’re essentially forcing the river out of its normal course and into an underground tunnel.

AARON LAKOFF: For all the talk of progress and economic development, few people are asking the people who live in the region, what they think about the mega development project on their land. I’ve come to Mani-utenam, to find out how people here, feel about the dams, and the Plan Nord.

AARON LAKOFF Marie Louise Andre Mackenzie is an 86 year old Innu elder from the tiny community of Schefferville, Quebec, 700 miles north-east of Montreal. She’s singing a traditional Innu women’s song. Mackenzie has deep and dignified wrinkles, and a large smile on her face. Born in the woods far outside of Schefferville, and speaking only in Innu, Mackenzie says the new development projects, threaten her community and culture .

Marie Louise Andre Mackenzie: I will always protect my land and my language. If you are aware, you know that our land is all broken up. Schefferville is broken and full of holes now. If I die, all will die with me. I hope the children will preserve it. This is my sadness. Even if I don’t want it, they will break it anyways. It has already started. I know this because I have seen it. It is the children I have pity for. The impact of mining development has meant that the youth are happy because they have jobs, but they are not conscious of all they are losing. They are lured by money.

AARON LAKOFF: Marie Louise Andre Mackenzie is not the only one concerned about the dams. Almost everybody I speak to says they think the Plan Nord will cause more harm than good. Shanet Pilot, who lives on the small reserve of Uashat says she’s already seeing the effects of the development

SHANET PILOT: People are seeing that the consequences of the Plan Nord are unimaginably heavy the caribou have been driven far, far away. Our grandparents always knew where the caribou would be. Now they’re moving away. Some men left to go hunting last weekend, and didn’t find any caribou in the place they were supposed to be.

AARON LAKOFF: Under the Plan Nord, the government insists that half of the northern region will be protected, and Quebec Premier Marois has stated that she wants to turn an area of land roughly the size of Vermont into a national park. Shanet’s son, Pishu, is wary of such promises.

PISHU PILOT: They tell us with the Plan Nord that 50% of the land will be protected and 50% will be destroyed. And when I say destroyed, I mean permanently, for good. But that destroyed 50% is 50% of our history, of our roots, our ancestors, and our culture. As Indigenous people we’ll be assimilated. For me, this is unacceptable. I don’t want that for my children.

AARON LAKOFF: Both Pishu and Shanet have taken part in direct action to try and stop the Hydro Quebec development on the Romaine river. Highway 138, the main route for the construction crews, has seen numerous blockades. Tree trunks are strewn across the highway to stop vehicles, and the protestors camp out beside a fire.

AARON LAKOFF: Denise Jourdain, an Innu language teacher, was arrested at one of the first blockades of highway 138.

DENISE JOURDAIN: I saw the eyes of my grandson through the barricades on the 138, and I thought “my God, this isn’t what I want to pass on to my grandchild.” This isn’t what the mothers want to pass on to their children and grandchildren – interminable struggles.

AARON LAKOFF Immediately after Jourdain was released from jail, she and other women decided to initiate a long march to the regional capital, Montreal. They arrived in Montreal on April 20, just in time to lead an Earth Day demonstration which drew hundreds of thousands of people out onto the street.

AARON LAKOFF: But with some environmentalists calling for more “green” sources of energy. What about the energy the dams could produce? It turns out, some of it won’t even go to Quebec. Clifton Nicholas is a Mohawk activist from the reserve of Kanehsatake, who has accompanied me on my trip to Mani-utenam.

CLIFTON NICHOLAS: Green energy for who? Guilt free energy for the south? Guilt free energy for the Americans? That’s what it is.

AARON LAKOFF Hydro Quebec says that electricity exports to the United States generated 15% of its net income in 2011.. The company has been supplying Vermont, New York, Massachusets, and other North-Eastern states with electricity since the 1980s..

CLIFTON NICHOLAS: “We’re not burning up fossil fuels, we’re daming up rivers. But in essence, when you dam up those rivers and you flood those lands, that’s real sacrilege to the people who have that connection to the land. But again, they are slowly diminishing the Innu people’s ability to be Innu. And they did that to my people, the Kanien’gehaga people.”

AARON LAKOFF: As a teenager, Nicholas, was involved in the infamous Oka Crisis of 1990, when the Canadian army sent 3000 troops into Kanehsatake to confront a Mohawk blockade against the development of a golf course on an ancient burial site. He says he knows, the risks people are taking resisting the dams and Plan Nord.

CLIFTON NICHOLAS: “Right now it’s very dangerous in this day in age to stand up, for any indigenous people anywhere in the world. Particularly in Canada, there has been a shift towards the right wing mentality towards resistance. Just look at the legislation that has been passed over say the last 15 years. That has created a situation where any kind of civil disobediance, be it peaceful or not, is considered terrorism.”

AARON LAKOFF As our trip in the Innu communities winds down, so does the Mario Vollant Hockey Tournament, a large amateur competition which brings in Aboriginal teams from across Quebec to compete.

AARON LAKOFF Hundreds are gathered at the local arena in Mani-utenam to cheer for their favorite team. Teenagers are enjoying hot dogs and french fries. Again, from first glance, this Innu reserve has so much in common with many Canadian small towns. But what sets it apart is its struggle to maintain their community and lands against incredible odds. As Denise Jourdain explains

For Making Contact, I’m Aaron Lakoff, in Mani-utenam