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Innu Nation force feds, province back to table over Muskrat Falls

BY Ben Powless Oct 9, 2021

The threat of a lawsuit has helped the Innu Nation force the governments of Newfoundland and Labrador and Canada to renegotiate benefits from the troubled Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project.

Estimated in 2010 to cost $6.2 billion, the project’s price tag has ballooned to $13 billion after years of delays. Negotiations with the Innu began in 2006 and were finalized with an Impact Benefit Agreement in 2011.

One clause of the IBA included a percentage of profits from the sale of hydroelectricity. However, potential benefits were diminished by a last-minute deal this summer between Quebec and the federal government to prevent massive increases in electricity prices in the province to cover the cost overruns of the project.

Those initial price increases would have seen residents forced to pay 23 cents per kilowatt-hour, up from 13 cents today. The federal government agreed to a $5.2 billion agreement in principle July 28 to cap rate hikes to 14.7 cents, plus annual increases. 

That deal caught the Innu Nation by surprise and threatened the level of benefits they might have received. 

“Canada made a deliberate choice to help the province at the Innu’s expense. The Innu people will not stand for this,” Innu Nation Grand Chief Etienne Rich told CBC News in August, just after the deal was announced. Shortly after, they announced a lawsuit seeking an interim injunction to void the agreement and which accused the Crown of ignoring their fiduciary responsibilities. 

The Innu say they were not properly consulted as a stakeholder during the talks over the agreement. Nor, they say, were they provided a detailed financial breakdown of how their benefits would be impacted. That means if there were no profits from the project within 30 years, the Innu could be left owing $300 million to the province. 

The lawsuit was set to be heard by September 24. That afternoon, the Innu Nation, the province and the federal government released a joint statement indicating they had reached an agreement outside of the courts to negotiate a separate agreement. 

“The Parties have requested the Court defer releasing a decision on the injunction application to provide an opportunity for discussions to take place. The Parties will not be commenting further at this time,” the statement read. 

Those negotiations were originally set to conclude by September 30, but are now expected to take longer. The Innu Nation did not respond to a request for comment. 

During the original negotiations with the Innu Nation, there were extensive ecological issues raised concerning the potential impacts of the massive dam on the Churchill River basin. Later, a 2016 Harvard report showed that the dam would result in a rise in methylmercury levels in fish. This led to protests that year, followed by an agreement in 2018 to wetland capping to prevent the release of methylmercury.

Dr. George Jackman of the environmental organization Riverkeeper explained that the rise in methylmercury is a result of natural processes prevented from happening. “During decomposition processes of organic vegetation, methylmercury is mobilized into the food web. Then there’s magnification of these toxins – each rung on that food chain is magnified by an order of 10.” 

Normally, a river would carry those things out to the ocean. But Jackman says that dams prevent the natural functions of rivers, with the result that when humans eat the fish, they end up consuming high doses of methylmercury, which is extremely toxic for humans.

“A dam is the most violent action that can be done to a river. I use the word violent because that’s what it is. It violently disrupts the function and flow of a river flowing for thousands of years, altering the river flow and sediment that is vital for all ecological integrity of riverine ecology,” Jackman told the Nation. “So what they do is convert a river into a lake.” 

Jackman says that many of the proposed solutions, such as fish elevators, don’t solve the problem. Another problem they create, he says, is that they block the sediment flow – a vital part of the ecological process. As that sediment gets deposited beneath the dam, the dam may eventually need to be dredged to prevent an overflow. 

“These reservoirs are boreal forest being flooded – ancient forests – so you’re losing the carbon sequestration of that forest. On top of that, you’re getting greenhouse gases being released from the impairment of decomposition processes similar to the uptake of methylmercury,” Jackman insisted. 

by Ben Powless, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.