Innu community signs deal with Quebec to explore energy projects

Community pauses $500M lawsuit against Quebec after signing agreement.

After years of conflict, the Innu community of Pessamit and the government of Quebec recently signed a $45 million framework agreement that hopes to facilitate future negotiations regarding potential energy projects in the Innu territory.

“It’s a historic agreement,” Innu Council of Pessamit Chief Marielle Vachon said during a news conference in the community, which is located in the Cote-Nord region of Quebec.

As part of the agreement, Pessamit will pause a $500 million lawsuit filed against the province in 1998. The lawsuit alleges the province violated their ancestral rights by flooding Innu territory for the construction of several hydroelectric dams.

In return, Pessamit will receive $45 million, which Quebec Premier François Legault called, a “goodwill gesture” by the government.

“It will be up to the band council to decide what to do with the money. But we have to report that there is a real urgency to act to improve the living conditions of the members of the Pessamit community,” the premier said.

Vachon said the money will be used to tackle the community’s housing crisis and create a social development fund for its roughly 2,400 members.

However, some community members were upset about the lack of consultation and transparency by the council, who kept the very existence of the agreement secret until shortly before it was announced.

As a result, a few hours ahead of Legault’s visit, some members decided to build a blockade on the main road to Pessamit.

One of the protesters, Jérôme Charles St-Onge, said that he only learned about the agreement through rumors.

“It struck me. So, this morning we are closing Pessamit. I am closing Pessamit. No non-Indigenous people will enter Pessamit, the Innu nation. I’m closing it because there’s no transparency,” St-Onge said in an interview.

St-Onge stressed that the community should have been informed about the discussions between the band council and the province before the premier arrived in Pessamit. Furthermore, St-Onge said that he opposed the agreement.

“Seventy years ago, Hydro-Quebec didn’t ask our permission to build the first dam. It did it without our knowledge. Seventy years later, they’re back with the same damn thing. The same damn technique. Here is $45 million. You have no choice,” he said.

The Pessamit police intervened and tried to dismantle the blockade, but were met with resistance from protestors, who told police officers that the protest was peaceful.

Lafrenière was able to calm nerves by speaking to some of the protesters and eventually, the blockade came down before Legault entered the community.

Vachon said that a community meeting would take place later in the day to explain the framework agreement and alleviate concerns.

“I would have liked to have been able to talk about it, but like I said, the file was confidential until the last minute. Until yesterday, it was confidential for me,” Vachon told reporters after the agreement was signed.

Hydro-Quebec’s chief executive officer Michael Sabia, who also made the trip to Pessamit, emphasized that Indigenous communities would be involved as true financial partners from the get-go in future energy projects.

“Our agreement gives us an opportunity to start discussions on wind turbines and other projects with the community of Pessamit,” he said.

During the community meeting, Vachon said that if negotiations lead to an eventual agreement with the province on future energy projects, a referendum will be held.

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