Premier Danny Williams got some bad news recently when he had his first meeting with the new grand chief of the Innu Nation.
The New Dawn, negotiated two years ago, is stubbornly refusing to rise. The premier wanted to get the Labrador Innu formally bound to the long-languishing agreement by the end of November, but once again he is being disappointed.
As the name suggests, New Dawn was supposed to herald a new age of co-operation between Labrador’s Innu Nation and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The province would finally pay the Innu compensation for drowning Lake Michikamau beneath the Smallwood Reservoir 40 years ago, and the Innu would get a cut of any new Lower Churchill action. In return, the Innu Nation would approve Nalcor’s desire to build dams at Muskrat Falls and the Gull Island rapids.
Williams negotiated the New Dawn when Mark Nui of Natuashish was grand chief and Peter Penashue of Sheshatshiu the deputy. Both are generally in favour of industrial developments they think pay benefits to Innu people.
Penashue often speaks for the New Dawn at community meetings, on local radio stations and on the hustings during election campaigns. Proponents like him say deals like the New Dawn give Innu control over projects built on their land, as well as a share of the revenues.
But there’s a well-known problem with the New Dawn. The Innu electorate was not given the chance to vote in a referendum on the agreement that was supposed to have been held within months of the end of negotiations.
That was years ago, and a lot has happened since then, including Penashue’s resignation for personal reasons and the subsequent rescinding of that resignation on the grounds that New Dawn still needed his help.
Unfortunately, one thing that has not occurred is the necessary vote. The Innu Nation kept postponing the referendum, setting or not setting dates months in the future — dates that would, in any case, be ignored or superceded. The leadership explained that more time was needed to get accurate information out to Innu voters.
On the other hand, many of those would-be voters said their leaders were just afraid the people would reject New Dawn. They said the Innu Nation didn’t want to put it to the test.
Without the vote, there’s no way to know, but certainly many Innu oppose further development on their lands, no matter how much money or how many jobs they might get out of it.
People like Elizabeth Penashue — Peter’s mother — point to the damage the first Churchill development wreaked on ancient Innu lands and on their traditional livelihoods, to the lakes and rivers they once travelled, and to the once numerous woodland caribou of southwestern Labrador. They say the Innu shouldn’t profit from more damage, but instead prevent it from happening.
In the meantime, both the provincial government and the Innu Nation have been acting as if the New Dawn was already ratified. Innu have been hired to clearcut the banks of the Churchill River while Nalcor drill crews probe the deep rock beneath the foot of Manitu-utshu.
Williams, being a lawyer, probably realized the New Dawn couldn’t last forever without legal status — thus the November deadline. With Penashue back, the premier had likely hoped to see everything wrapped up by Christmas.
Who knows if Williams imagined that Penashue might lose his bid to become grand chief in the Innu Nation elections last month, but lose he did.
The new grand chief is Joseph Riche. He also trained in the law, like Williams, but they might not have much else in common. They don’t seem to share the same enthusiasm for damming big rivers, or for passing the New Dawn.
As a consequence, Williams is learning that the issue won’t be settled one way or another before spring — and no guarantees.
So, until possibly April or May, the premier must wait, sitting in the morning twilight for his New Dawn, hoping it doesn’t all go black.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.