The Innu Nation of Labrador is seeking $4 billion in damages from Hydro-Québec over the Upper Churchill project.
The Labrador Indigenous government announced Tuesday it had filed the suit in Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court to seek compensation for what it says was the theft of ancestral Innu land in 1969 to build the Churchill Falls hydroelectric project.
“Over 50 years ago, Hydro-Québec and the provincial utility in Newfoundland and Labrador now called Nalcor Energy, through the Churchill Falls (Labrador) Corporation, stole our land and flooded it in order to take advantage of the enormous hydro potential of the Churchill Falls,” Innu Nation Grand Chief Etienne Rich said.
“This project was undertaken without consulting us and without our consent.”
Rich said the land used for the project forms part of the claim the Innu Nation is negotiating with the federal and provincial governments. He added the Innu people were not informed at any point about the impact the project would have on their way of life.
Rich said that before the Innu were forced to settle in communities in the 1950s, they travelled across Labrador hunting, fishing, gathering and trading.
“We would come together for trade and cultural events at important gathering places, like the Meshikamau Lake area, in the interior of Labrador,” he said.
What was Meshikamau Lake now forms part of the Smallwood Reservoir at the Churchill Falls facility. The reservoir is 6,500 square kilometres and a large portion of land was flooded to create it.
Rich said the area was rich in fish and wildlife and was on the migration path of two herds of caribou, and was where the Innu buried their dead.
“The impact of Churchill Falls has been felt across generations of Innu,” he said. “What happened was not right. Our elders deserved better treatment then, and we demand better treatment now.”
The Innu Nation already reached a redress agreement in 2011 with Nalcor Energy regarding their role as a shareholder in the Churchill Falls (Labrador) Corp., and said now it is Hydro-Québec’s turn to be held accountable for its role.
The Indigenous government has been trying for years to get Hydro-Québec to discuss the issue, said Rich, but has had no luck in getting that to happen, and the lawsuit is the next step.
He said they contacted the utility as recently as 2019 and got no response, but are still willing to talk.
“Every time we try to sit down with them, they avoid us,” he said. “This is the thing, we are prepared to go to court, but if there’s going to be an open negotiation, we are happy to do that as well.”
Nancy Kleer, a lawyer with Olthuis, Kleer, Townshend LLP, who represent the Innu Nation, echoed Rich. She said the Innu preference was for a negotiated resolution with Hydro-Québec, “to allow for relationship-building and solutions to impacts that go beyond money,” but their requests were ignored.
Kleer said Hydro-Québec played an essential role in the project's construction by providing guarantees that financiers required, by signing a long-term contract to buy virtually all the power and energy from it until 2041 and by building major new transmission lines in Quebec in order to accept the electricity.
“But for Hydro-Québec, this damage would never have been done to Innu land,” she said.