Go to main menu Go to main content Go to footer

Community ᐄᐦᑖᐧᐃᓐ

Kitcisakik to finally be connected to electric grid after decades of hydro exploitation

BY Patrick Quinn May 24, 2022

After fighting for more than 50 years to bring electricity to its community, the Algonquin community of Kitcisakik is celebrating an agreement with Hydro-Québec that will connect it to the provincial hydroelectric grid in three or four years. 

“Today’s announcement is a historic one!” stated Chief Régis Penosway. “In addition to improving the quality of life of each individual, the electrification of Kitcisakik’s buildings will impact the environment and the community’s economic development. I am very proud of our participation in the project and of the work we have accomplished.” 

The project is called Animiki Ickote, the Anishinaabe words for thunder and fire, which combined translate as electricity. In collaboration with Kitcisakik, Hydro-Québec is assembling a technical committee to plan construction of a 70-kilometre to the community. 

Quebec’s Indigenous Affairs Ministry and Indigenous Services Canada will pay to adapt homes and community buildings to the new power supply. Hydro-Québec will assume the transmission line’s design, construction and maintenance costs. 

“We say when you build a dam in James Bay, you work 24 hours a day – you should do the same for us,” said Jimmy Papatie, Kitcisakik’s infrastructure and natural resources director. “It’s a new day for our community.”

Though the community is located along the Dozois Reservoir, which supplies Hydro-Québec generating stations, the use of Kitcisakik hydro resources to power the province didn’t prompt the government to run the short transmission line to the community. After years of campaigning against the crown corporation, recent projects to export electricity to the northeastern US, Kitcisakik joined an Anishinaabe-Atikamekw-Innu coalition that forced Hydro-Québec to the negotiating table.

Promoting a choice of “reparation or confrontation”, the coalition denounced the export of energy “stolen” from First Nations who “live in a state of poverty comparable to third world countries.” Penosway lamented that the corporation had “sold the skin of the bear before killing it.”

“We campaigned almost two years and New York decided not to buy unless Hydro-Québec got agreements with the communities,” Papatie told the Nation. “We told media in the States they’re going to build infrastructure on land that’s not even ceded. The coalition put so much pressure on Hydro-Québec that it changed its strategy and decided to come meet us.”

Having never accepted federal reserve status, the First Nation’s nearly 400 residents have long felt like squatters on their own land. The Quebec government flooded their old village in 1948, burying traplines and their cemetery under water and forcing them to relocate to their current location. 

With three huge Hydro-Québec reservoirs on traditional Kitcisakik territory, seasonal flooding resulted in further community displacements, loss of cultural practices, periods of famine and cancer-causing mercury in the food chain. While diesel generators currently power necessary services, the community is eager to move beyond its oil dependency.

“When all the generators start in the summer, you can smell the pollution in the air and hear the noise,” said Papatie. “It’s very stressful for all of us to get our gas every day, fill up our generators and start them. For a single mother who doesn’t have enough money to buy a generator and not enough to heat her house with wood, this is going to help a lot.”

Besides costing the community an estimated $1.5 million annually for fuel, generator limitations cause school shutdowns and restricts other activities. Relying on candlelight during the winter creates significant safety concerns, including a risk of house fires. 

“We’re losing so much food in the summer,” Papatie added. “We’re already preparing for this transition, providing information for our people how this power and the bills work. We’re also preparing ourselves to start negotiating for a new village with all the infrastructure we’re going to need.”

Papatie said discussions are progressing well with federal and provincial governments to establish a new village near Barker Bay about 17km north. Although this move is at least a decade away, community leaders already have ideas for attracting business from nearby Val-d’Or along Highway 117.

“We’re going to use all the facilities we have now to start our economy,” Papatie explained. “The power will continue even to our next village. If we build there, we can build our own solar system, everything we need.”

Kitcisakik’s present land doesn’t enable significant construction, expansion or infrastructure, causing a lack of running water. Residents fetch drinking water from a central pumping station, where there is a block of communal showers, toilets and washing machines.

After recording 27 Covid cases during the recent Omicron wave, the toilet block had to be closed for a month while a health team delivered water to vulnerable community members. In a viral video providing a glimpse of Kitcisakik’s daily challenges, Papatie can be seen taking an outdoor shower using a water tank installed on the back of a pickup truck. 

“Half of the camping grounds in Quebec are better equipped than Kitcisakik – and they’re only open six months a year,” commented Ghislain Picard, regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador. 

Papatie said some community members were in tears when they heard the news while others still cannot believe it’s happening. 

“Kitcisakik will always be grateful for the help we got from other nations, including the Cree Nation,” said Papatie. “We know former Grand Chief Abel Bosum spoke to Hydro-Québec about our situation. Sometimes we felt so alone, but now we see we’re no longer alone.”

LATEST ᒫᐦᒡ ᑎᐹᒋᒧᐧᐃᓐ

Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.