The people have spoken, and Labrador — or, at least, most of central Labrador — has been sold.
For years, the Newfoundland government and the Innu Nation kept the contents of their New Dawn agreement secret from everybody, including the Innu of Sheshatshiu and Natuashish. All anyone knew for sure was that if the Innu ratified it, they would be giving permission for two new hydroelectric dams on the Churchill River.
For year after year, Innu leaders postponed the necessary vote, although that didn’t stop the province from going ahead with preparations.
All it took to turn Labrador into a mini Alberta was, first, a new leader to take the helm of the Innu Nation (a leader who quickly adopted old policies and has declared his mandate to be to act without any further discussions), and second, for an old leader to ride the 39 per cent wave and join Stephen Harper’s majority in Ottawa (an election during which, ironically, the Conservatives promised to help fund the proposed Muskrat Falls project in a failed bid to win seats on the island).
Peter Penashue, the new MP for Labrador, has long been an outspoken advocate for the development of the Lower Churchill hydroelectric project because, as he has said, he sees it as a great way for the Labrador Innu to become economically independent.
The details of the New Dawn pact were finally released and, although they confused many voters before the referendum, leading to a situation described as “chaotic,” one point was made clear: the Innu would be paid $2 million within days as compensation for damage caused to them by the original Churchill Falls development.
Path to prosperity
Naturally, the deal also contains much about Penashue’s path to prosperity, most of which concerns how many royalties are due at what stage of the Muskrat Falls and the Gull Island developments, but it’s unclear how much it was the long-term plans or the short-term gains that influenced the highly favourable vote.
Of course, it could still turn out that the $2 million will be a wasted downpayment from the developer’s point of view, no matter what permissions have been granted. The Newfoundland government still hasn’t come anywhere near proving that it won’t cost more than it’s worth, or that it won’t grievously harm the environment – or, for that matter, that it has anywhere to sell what electricity it won’t be giving away to Nova Scotia.
Nor has the provincial government even shown how it’s going to come up with the ballooning billions that the proposal will cost — a task which has not been made any easier, even though Penashue’s surprising win may have put Harper in the odd position of having to keep an election promise (the one he made about providing some kind of loan guarantee).
As well, just because the Innu voted for compensation for the loss of a considerable amount of territory to the flooding of the Smallwood Reservoir, it does not mean they wholeheartedly support any more damming of the historic river, or the destruction of a sacred site at Muskrat Falls.
The new MP’s own mother, it should be remembered, is at the forefront (and always has been) of the Innu campaign to protect their territory’s natural environment against any more megaprojects. In electing a Harper Conservative, Labrador may have joined the Tarsands Revolution, but many Labradorians still know that a construction job may last a year or two, but wholesale destruction is forever.
Now that the New Dawn agreement has been at long last duly ratified by the members of the Innu Nation, some have begun to present it as being in the nature of a land-claims settlement, but it is actually both less and more.
Less, because it was a deal struck in the backrooms during meetings between a few officials from the two sides, without the full public consultations and scrutiny that the true settlement required.
More, because the deal has set an important new precedent for the Innu. Compensation was already owed to them for Churchill Falls and there was no need, until they ratified New Dawn, to give anything more up to get paid.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.