Indigenous Community Airs Long-Standing Grievances at Northern Pass Hearing

Jul 20, 2017

As the proposed Northern Pass power line – which would connect New England to Canadian hydroelectric power – works its way through the state siting process, officials took opened the floor on Wednesday at a hearing in Concord to receive public feedback.

This hearing drew some of the most steadfast critics of Canadian hydropower: an indigenous community from Northern Quebec.

Nearly one third of the dams that power Quebec's electric grid were built on the ancestral territory of the Pessamit Innu, a Canadian First Nation on the North Shore of the Saint Lawrence River.

The Pessamit filed to intervene in the Northern Pass proceeding in November of last year, but their request was denied by the state’s energy siting board, which determined they failed to show that another power line connecting to New England would impact their “rights, privileges and interests.”

The community has continued its efforts to tell their story to New England electricity consumers though, and has partnered with the Sierra Club to fund a tour through Massachusetts and New Hampshire to meet with legislators and other state officials.

At the hearing on Wednesday, a half dozen elders and members of the Pessamit band council – all speakers of French and their native language Innu – clustered around a podium in front of the members of the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee.

They stood while New Hampshire resident Paul Pouliot of the Cowasuck Band of the Abenaki people read a prepared statement they had provided. It said the goal of their trip was “to make New England aware that 29 percent of the electricity Hydro Quebec intends to sell was acquired in an immoral and illegal manner to the detriment of the Pessamit.”

The Pessamit’s complaints stem from the fact that they were not consulted in the 1950s and 1960s when Hydro Quebec first began building dams on their traditional territory. The community takes its name from the Betsiamites River, where they traditionally would gather in the spring and summer to fish for salmon.

The Betsiamites River dam
Credit Hannah McCarthy for NHPR

In the 1950s, prior to the construction of hydroelectric dams, the Pessamit caught as many as 1,000 salmon on the river, but in recent years have taken fewer than 200 fish per year.

For its part, Hydro Quebec says if the Pessamit want to discuss their grievances, the door is open. (Read their response below.)

The company notes that the two parties have signed multiple agreements which have resulted in Hydro paying out nearly $80 million to the community over the last 20 years.

Hydro Quebec also says that for ten years they collaborated with the Pessamit on a project working to restore salmon populations to the Betsiamites river, though that collaboration ended in 2010.

While experts in the field do agree hydroelectric projects can be harmful to salmon spawning habitat, the cause of the decline in Atlantic salmon is complicated and may have as much or more to do with over-fishing when the fish are out at sea, as loss of habitat in their spawning grounds.

The dispute between the Pessamit and Hydro Quebec is a long-standing one. The two signed an agreement in 1973 which offered the community $150,000 for “all damages past, present and future” caused by hydroelectric development on their territory.

In 1998, the band council filed suit, claiming this agreement was abusive and the federal government had failed in its fiduciary duty to protect the Pessamit. The suit asked for damages in excess of $10 billion dollars.

The case has been working its way through the courts ever since, and remains unresolved.

Read Hydro Quebec's statement on the allegations made by the Pessamit Innu: