SEPT-ÎLES, QC—Marie Louise Andre Mackenzie is an 86-year-old elder from the tiny town of Schefferville, Quebec. With deep and dignified wrinkles on her face, and a large smile, Mackenzie speaks in Innu-aimun. As she speaks, her granddaughter translates her words to French.
“I will always protect my land and my language. But now our land is broken up. Schefferville is full of holes. But if I die, all will die with me,” said Mackenzie, who spoke to The Dominion in a house on the reserve of Uashat. “The impact of mining development has meant that the youth are happy because they have jobs, but they are not conscious of all they are losing.”
Mackenzie represents a profound link to Innu tradition and a past with very little contact with settler society. Born in the woods far outside of Schefferville, 1,100 kilometres northeast of Montreal, she understands the dangers to her language and tradition that could result from the Plan Nord and other development projects.
After she speaks, Mackenzie pauses and then sings a traditional Innu women's song she learned from her sister. Her granddaughter breaks into tears.
The Plan Nord, according to the Quebec government, is one of the biggest economic, social, and environmental development projects of our time. The 25-year project is estimated to bring in $80 billion in investments and create 20,000 jobs. The plan, aggressively promoted under the government of Jean Charest, was recently re-branded Le Nord pour tous (The North for all) plan under Premier Pauline Marois, who replaced Charest in September.
But the words of Mackenzie and other residents of Innu communities from different parts of Nitassinan (the Innu traditional territory, which comprises much of northeastern Quebec and Labrador) raise doubts about the true nature of the government’s new “North for all” plan.
“The Plan Nord affects our territory, and when it affects our territory it affects tradition, culture, our language, our roots, and our history,” said Pishu Pilot, a father of two young children from Uashat. “Plan Nord is a plan that will destroy everything that we are as First Nations people.”
“People are seeing that the [consequences of the] Plan Nord are unimaginably heavy,” said his mother, Shanet Pilot. “There's uranium, trees, rivers being diverted—the caribou have been driven far, far away,” she said, holding an eagle feather that she says brings her strength. “Our grandparents always knew where the caribou would be. Now they're moving away. Some men left to go hunting last weekend and didn't find any caribou in the place they were supposed to be.”
The Plan Nord is a multi-faceted resource-exploitation project that involves digging mines, expanding forestry, and damming a slew of rivers. Indigenous-led resistance against the plan—and especially its proposed hydro-electric projects along the Romaine River—has been ongoing.
The Romaine is a 500-kilometre-long river that flows south from the Quebec-Labrador border and empties into the St. Lawrence Seaway. Hydro-Québec, the province’s public utility responsible for electricity generation and distribution, is proposing four dams, which would mean major devastation for one of the last major undammed rivers in the province.
Even so, the province has touted the new dams as a source of “green” energy.
“Surely when they speak of 'green energy,' it's not green energy, because first they're going to destroy the river with dams,” said Élyse Vollant, a mother of eight who helped to lead a march against the Plan Nord from Mani-Utenam to Montreal last spring. “And in the river there are often salmon and other fish. It's other animals who will be destroyed by this too. And to get to the river, they will have to cut trees… This is not green energy.”
Hydro-Québec held two referenda in 2011, one in Uashat and another in Mani-Utenam, 900 kilometres from Montreal. The referenda asked if the communities would allow transmission lines from the dams to be built across their territory. Neither referendum on the project received majority approval.
Despite the results, Hydro-Québec has carried on with construction.
“After the results of the two referenda, Hydro-Québec continued with their construction,” explained Denise Jourdain, a grandmother and Innu language teacher in Mani-Utenam. “They continued to install their transmission lines that will pass through the ancestral territory of Uashat and Mani-Utenam, so a group of young men denounced [Hydro-Québec] and started [a] blockade.” The young men were soon joined by others.
There have been five blockades of Highway 138, the main highway of the Côte-Nord region, in the past year alone, including blockades directly in front of a Hydro-Québec dam construction site near the town of Havre-Saint-Pierre in November.
At one of the first blockades, in March, 12 women and one man were arrested by provincial police. Only Jourdain spent time in jail. Soon after, Jourdain, Vollant, and others arrested decided to organize a 900-kilometre march from Mani-Utenam to Montreal to protest the Plan Nord. The month-long march was led by a handful of determined women from Uashat and Mani-Utenam. They attracted media attention, doing interviews with the Toronto Star and CBC Radio. The marchers arrived in Montreal on April 20, at the height of the strike against tuition fees and just in time for the official Plan Nord job fair, which was disrupted by student activists. The Innu marchers also led the April 22 Earth Day demonstration in Montreal, which in conjunction with the student strike mobilization drew hundreds of thousands of people to the streets.
Though Montreal might seem a world away from Mani-Utenam, the link between the Plan Nord and the Quebec student strike is not coincidental. “Charest, dehors! On va te trouver un job dans le Nord!” (“Charest, out! We'll find you a job in the North!”) became an often-chanted slogan on the streets of Montreal during the strike. The slogan expressed a collective rage against then-Premier Jean Charest after he joked that the students protesting outside the Plan Nord job fair should be given jobs—as far away in the North as possible.
Student struggles and Indigenous land defense became interwoven in a way unprecedented in Quebec, as members of the student movement made direct links between the Charest government's neoliberal plans to deregulate education while selling off natural resources with the Plan Nord. The feeling was that if the student movement was to be successful, it would need to expand its scope to include other social and environmental causes.
When the Innu launched their most recent blockade of Highway 138 in October, the militant student union Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSE) sent a delegation of its members to help bolster the barricade. And in November, students at McGill mounted a campaign to urge the university to divest from companies directly involved in the Plan Nord.
Despite the re-branding of the Plan Nord and a change of rhetoric at the provincial government level, construction is carrying on as usual in northern Quebec. On an official economic mission to New York City in December, Marois reiterated her support for development in the North, albeit with increased consultation with First Nations. She told mining investors that there would be changes in mining royalties and taxes, but that the changes would be “reasonable.”
Asked if they think things with the Plan Nord will change under the Marois government, the women marchers gathered in Vollant's dining room shake their heads no.
“Me, I don't recognize the Quebec or Canadian system of governance,” said Jourdain. “They are not my governments, they weren't built according to our ways and customs. They were built according to the society that settled here—how to regulate behaviour and laws. They never consulted us.”
Aaron Lakoff is a radio journalist, DJ, and community organizer living in Montreal, trying to map the constellations between reggae, soul, and a liberated world.
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