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The Betsiamites dam. (Hydro-Quebec)

Is Hydro-Quebec a criminal organization? The Pessamit problem

Commentary/Opinion by

Quebec’s tenacious energy provider, Hydro-Quebec, has been a disease to the Pessamit Innu people, who are native to the Betsiamites river basin in Eastern Quebec. Since 1952, these people have been forced to sacrifice their way and quality of life when Hydro-Quebec began installing two massive hydroelectric generating stations upstream of the Pessamit’s ancestral homeland.

More recently, in August 2016, a Massachusetts energy company called EverSource partnered with Hydro-Quebec and proposed the Northern Pass project in response to a new Massachusetts clean energy act. The hydropower transmission line would run from the Canadian Betsiamites dam, through New Hampshire, to power Massachusetts’ residents and businesses.

The Northern Pass is a destructive, imposter project that camouflages behind the namesakes of “clean” and “renewable” energy. It breaches a whole mess of national and international conservation treaties. By boycotting Hydro-Quebec, pressuring the university to divest relations, and lobbying the federal government to take action, McGill students have the power to prevent the Northern Pass project from progressing.

As it stands, depending on how many of the five available turbines are running to meet demand, the existing Betsiamites dam causes rapid water level fluctuations in the river. This has submerged the vital natural ecosystem that exists between the tributary and the forest, forcibly displacing the Pessamit people from their land and killing off many bankside species. The Pessamit liken these rivers to their travel routes or “highways”—they are now unsafe to travel due to debris and strong currents. The Betsiamites salmon are also at serious risk of complete extinction as a result of Hydro-Quebec’s heinous and imprudently implemented infrastructure that suffocates spawning grounds and prevents migration.

There are other proposed projects, including less crippling forms like wind and solar power, that could still meet Massachusetts’ energy requirements. Meanwhile, if the Northern Pass proposal succeeds, all five turbines in the Betsiamites dam will likely need to run constantly, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The surviving salmon populations will become completely extinct, the Betsiamites ancestral homeland and rivershore ecotone entirely devastated, the people wholly displaced, and thousands of years of harmonious living and natural beauty eradicated.

The Northern Pass project is merely the latest episode in the continuously exploitative relationship between Hydro-Quebec and the Pessamit Innu people. In Hydro-Quebec’s typical steamroller fashion, the original dams were not built with consent from or compensation to the Pessamit Innu people in the 1950s. In fact, Hydro-Quebec explicitly breached constitutional obligations by building the Betsiamites dam without conducting any impact assessment studies. To this day, the Pessamit People are still waiting for their fact check and their fat cheque.

However, as their elders fail to achieve public recognition of this social and environmental injustice and its decimation of their nation’s traditional means of subsistence, unemployment in Pessamit communities has skyrocketed, and Pessamit youths betray defeat. The suicide rate for Pessamit young adults is five times higher than for Canadians of the same demographic.

There are hundreds of thousands of Hydro-Quebec customers who have equal boycott power. By stifling this story with distorted broadcasting, Hydro-Quebec is effectively pulling the wool over customers’ eyes while it warms them with its exploitative energy. Instead of thanking them by lining their pockets, Quebec residents and McGill students need to stand alongside the Pessamit people and Massachusetts supporters in their fight, and risk a little frostbite.

Further, the federal government has the power to penalize the environmental and social crimes that Hydro-Quebec and the Quebec government are committing. Most importantly, the Northern Pass violates the Convention for the Conservation of Salmon in the North Atlantic, which mandates that Canada apply the “Precautionary Approach” to salmon management––if any potential public or environmental harm is suspected, even if lacking scientific consensus, protective action must be taken.

With enough public outcry, especially from the younger generation that got him elected, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his administration will be obliged to hold the Quebec provincial government accountable for their offences by taking litigation against them to the Supreme Court.

In a recent viral video, the Prime Minister famously told the tale of his great-grandfather who emigrated to Canada. At the time, there were strict fishing rules imposed by local constables and Trudeau’s ancestor ostensibly proclaimed in a thick Scottish accent, “if you cannae fish you cannae live!”

A cute anecdote, no doubt, but the Pessamit Innu people are facing the same issue today. They cannot fish and they cannot live. Trudeau should respect the parallel he so neatly pointed out between his own origins and the injustices that the Pessamit Innu people are suffering.

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