Sophie Brochu says she has a lot to learn.
Brochu took over as the first woman President and CEO of Hydro-Québec April 6. And when she finally met Cree Grand Chief Abel Bosum August 14, she began with an apology – not for the pandemic-related delay to the meeting, but for what she was never taught in school.
“One of the things I am trying to learn is everything related to Indigenous communities,” Brochu told the Nation in an interview. “We learned nothing in school – I need to better understand the reality.”
Before joining Hydro-Québec, Brochu spent 12 years as President and CEO of Énergir, Quebec’s largest provider of natural gas. But only after joining Hydro-Québec did Brochu say she began to understand the relationship the company has with Cree communities and how significant it was for both parties.
Brochu says she understands the challenge over the past decades to build that relationship from one of distrust to where it is today. “We have to take nothing for granted, we have to constantly work on it like any relationship.”
Brochu said she hopes that at the end of her time with Hydro-Québec that the relationship with the Cree will be even stronger than when she took over.
“What I would like to do is build on the foundations that we have built up today. And by building on those foundations I think we can do more between Hydro-Québec and the Cree Nation, notably with the youth,” she said.
The Hydro-Québec president also wanted to offer an apology in advance: “I’m sure I will make a mistake one day, and I want people to know it won’t be on purpose, it will be by not understanding something. So, I apologize in advance and look forward to better understanding the Cree people and getting to meet the Cree on their territory when we are allowed.”
Noting that about 100 Cree are currently working for Hydro-Québec, Brochu described her vision to increase the opportunities for youth who may be interested in working with the Crown corporation, including things like summer jobs and full-time positions.
As for the present, Brochu confirmed that there are no new projects planned for Eeyou Istchee, but that if the Cree Nation approaches them with a project, they’d be happy to work together. She says that they are also collaborating on scientific studies.
Overall, the more that Brochu has learned about how the Cree Nation governs its territories, the more she is impressed.
“It goes to the deep presence in the territory – the way that the Cree manage land use, the use of the territory in all its capacity, the scientific studies,” she enthused. “It’s a good way to understand each other’s realities.”
As for renewable energy, Brochu says that Hydro-Québec has been looking at various places in Quebec where resource networks are too far from the electrical grid and are thus largely powered by diesel generators. In the past five years, Hydro-Québec has begun a project to try to “green” these projects.
While there are no plans yet to bring this technology to the Cree communities, Brochu said that if Cree communities have any specific renewable energy projects they can work together to see how it fits with their aspirations and needs.
Brochu says she was honoured to be appointed HQ’s chief executive – though it wasn’t the first time she had been offered the role. Hydro-Québec courted her for the position five years ago, but she was working on a development plan for Énergir and didn’t feel the timing was right.
She left Énergir four years later, in December 2019, hoping to take some time off to study and teach in Montreal. Shortly after, however, then-HQ president Éric Martel announced his departure. When she received the phone call to again offer her the job, she says it only took a nanosecond to consider before accepting.
“I asked, how can I be useful for society? And I felt it was the best way to contribute, so I joined, and it was a humbling experience for me. I’m so happy with that decision,” she said.
Apart from her day job with Hydro-Québec, Brochu is very active in the community of Montreal, where she lives, having cofounded a non-profit organization focused on education and working to support a women’s shelter.
“I think that we have lost society at large over the last 20 years,” Brochu says of her personal philosophy. “We’re so focused on organizations, acquiring market share, but I believe we can only be as strong as we are in our communities.”
This began her work to support economically disadvantaged youth in the neighbourhood near her downtown offices. She also observed that services for homeless women in Montreal are insufficient. She got in touch with homeless Indigenous women in Montreal, which she calls a wake-up call that spurred her desire to contribute to a facility for homeless women.
Above all, Brochu sees access to education as the key to a strong future for young people.
“I’m making sure that kids, wherever they come from, are exposed to their own possibilities and trying to build a bridge between themselves and their futures.” Which also happens to be a goal she sees reflected in her work with the Cree.