Some Reflections on Hydroelectric Development and the Land Rights of the Innu Who Live in Quebec and Those Who Live in Labrador

  • Liz Cassell Department of Sociology, University of Essex, UK


For more than thirty years, the Innu of the Matimekush Lac John reserve in Northern Quebec have been negotiating to recover rights to ancestral lands extinguished under the terms of the James Bay & Northern Quebec Agreement. Where the Cree and Inuit who shared these lands were prepared – having tried every means to stop the James Bay project – to sign away all their land rights except those specifically provided for in the Agreement, the Innu of Quebec and Labrador felt bound by their deep conviction that land is not a commodity to be bought and sold but the foundation of their belief system, held in trust for past generations and generations to come. Thus they walked away from the negotiation table and their rights were ignored by all parties to the Agreement. Since 1975, unlike the Cree and Inuit who signed the agreement, the Innu of Quebec have remained wards of the Crown. The governance of their communities is overseen by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, with no control over their budgets, inferior education for their children, and no access to lucrative government contracts. These go to their neighbours who have signed so-called land claims agreements with the governments and their commercial partners. Now the Innuare facing the extinguishment of their land rights in the east as their relatives in Labrador prepare to sign the final Tshash Petapen or ‘New Dawn’ Agreement, which must precede the building of a second hydroelectric project on the Churchill River. This will leave them with no rights to land other than those attached to their villages. For a hunting people who lived a nomadic life up until the 1950s this is a catastrophe which will destroy their language and culture. This paper makes some suggestions as to how the land might be recovered in the light of an unreported case which upholds indigenous rights over needs for hydroelectricity.