Opinion: Quebec must offer more for Indigenous groups to support hydro export goals

Frozen trees are seen under the Hydro-Quebec power lines on January 31, 2019 in Levis, Que.

Jacques Boissinot / The Canadian Press

Quebec Prime Minister François Legault’s sudden adoption of wind power in a province whose name is practically synonymous with hydropower is one method.

As Hydro-Québec seeks to export its growing electricity surpluses, the provincial utility is facing fierce opposition from indigenous groups and environmentalists who have campaigned for policy makers and voters in the U.S. to reject the new transmission lines it will need to do transporting all these thousands of additional megawatts south.

Mr Legault’s move this month to stand behind an indigenously owned wind power project that he previously spoke out against is part of a goodwill effort aimed at quelling criticism that the province’s hydropower wealth is on its back indigenous peoples whose ancestral land it was flooded by massive dams that were built without their consent.

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Such criticisms have harmed Hydro-Québec’s claim to be a “cleaner utility” as it competes with US wind, solar and small hydropower producers for contracts to supply zero-emission electricity to Massachusetts and New York.

Hydro-Québec’s U.S. partners have already pulled the plug on one such planned transmission project to carry 1,100 megawatts of Quebec electricity through New Hampshire, known as the Northern Pass, in 2019 after the state’s Supreme Court teamed up with regulators to decline the line.

Canada’s largest electricity supplier has now relied on the New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC), a 1,200 megawatt transmission line that the US subsidiary of the Spanish energy giant Iberdrola SA plans to build from the Quebec border via Maine. Most of the electricity delivered along the $ 1.2 billion line would continue to Massachusetts under a 20-year contract with Hydro-Québec that has stalled due to new transmission capacity.

Hydro-Québec has also partnered with a unit of the Blackstone Group to propose a $ 2.2 billion transmission line under Lake Champlain and the Hudson River to New York City in a bid by Governor Andrew Cuomo to supply renewable energy. Hydro-Québec faces resistance to this project within the province because it refuses to bury the Quebec portion of the line, despite its US partners promising to do so on this side of the border.

Both projects could suffer the same fate as Northern Pass if Hydro-Québec fails to overcome resistance from indigenous groups who have launched an extensive media and lobbying campaign in New England to influence public opinion there.

NECEC received presidential approval in the final days of Donald Trump’s administration, and President Joe Biden has set himself the goal of decarbonizing the U.S. electricity grid. However, the project’s supporters are still facing joint efforts by environmentalists and indigenous groups to block the line. The Secretary of State for Maine said last week her office had received a petition with more than 80,000 signatures calling for a nationwide referendum on the NECEC, more than enough to force such a vote and set the stage for a highly competitive campaign this fall create.

A coalition of Innu, Atikamekw and Anishnabeg leaders has also called on Canada’s Energy Regulators and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to block the NECEC, arguing that it violates Ottawa’s constitutional obligations to indigenous peoples and the liberal government’s obligation to make the Declaration of the United Nations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

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“If Prime Minister Trudeau takes this commitment seriously, [he] could force Hydro-Québec to postpone its export project to the United States until compensation for the destruction of our ancestral lands has been negotiated with our First Nations, ”said Mary Ann Nui, Deputy Grand Chief of the Innu Nation in December.

That same month, Ms. Nui and other chiefs published a damning statement in La Presse accusing Hydro-Québec of ignoring their demands for years. “Hydro-Québec’s long-standing disdain for us is forcing us to vent its dirty laundry in the US, where it counts is selling billions of dollars of electricity,” they wrote. “Our ultimate recourse is to expose American society to the immoral nature of the electricity on offer.”

Sophie Brochu, CEO of Hydro-Québec, who succeeded Éric Martel last April, responded to the heavy-hitting letter by pointing out agreements that had been signed to secure construction contracts and contracts worth $ 500 million for the Innu communities $ 8 billion utility company to grant Romaine river hydropower plant, completion postponed to 2022 due to the pandemic.

“We are sensitive to issues related to the ancestral rights of indigenous communities,” added Ms. Brochu. “However, Hydro-Québec has neither the power nor the legitimacy to recognize these rights or not. That is up to the federal and state governments. “

From the 1970s, previous Quebec governments reached compensation agreements with James Bay Cree in connection with hydropower projects on their traditional land. As hydropower development shifted east to a remote north shore of the St. Lawrence River, Innu leaders felt particularly ignored.

Mr Legault’s move to support the $ 600 million Apuiat North Shore Wind Power Project, a joint venture between eight Innu communities and Boralex Inc., marks a move by his Avenir Québec coalition government to re-establish its relationship with the Innu a campaign to improve 2018 against Apuiat and rejection of calls for recognition of systemic racism in the province. Hydro-Québec will purchase all of Apuiat’s electricity under a long-term supply agreement.

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However, the prime minister will have much more to offer to enable indigenous groups to abandon their opposition to Hydro-Québec’s broader export ambitions.

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