The brilliant spark of dissension

Michael Johansen
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This month, the people of Sheshatshiu are being required to do something many haven't done in a long, long time: pay their electricity bills.

A great number of Hydro customers in this Labrador Innu community have not paid a cent for their power consumption since 1992. Let's let Clyde Wells, the Newfoundland premier of the day, explain why:

"Mr. Speaker," Wells said 20 years ago in the House of Assembly, "some residents in Sheshatshiu, in Labrador, have allowed the Hydro meters to be removed from their homes and some other buildings in the community. These meters have been replaced with homemade 'jumpers' which enables electricity to flow into the home without being metered. Peter Penashue, the president of the Innu Nation and a resident of Sheshatshiu, has said publicly that the removal of the meters has been done deliberately, as part of a plan to stop paying for the electricity consumed by Innu."

Wells accused Penashue and "his associates" of breaking the law, of attempting blackmail and coercion of public officials, and of endangering the lives of their own people.

He said that as much as he tried, Penashue could not reasonably connect the illegal action with the ongoing land claim negotiations as he wanted to do, specifically as they concerned compensation for the destruction wreaked by the Smallwood Reservoir.

The premier predicted that the people of Sheshatshiu would never get their electricity for free, no matter what the justification. Wells was very wrong on both latter counts.

For almost 20 years, the power kept flowing into the jumpered buildings in Sheshatshiu, and Hydro kept sending bills out to the delinquent customers (bills which demanded tens of thousands of dollars each), but not one cent has been paid towards them - nor will any money ever be, thanks to the controversial New Dawn agreement between the Innu Nation and the provincial government.

Since the deal includes compensation for damage caused to Innu lands and waters by the Churchill Falls hydroelectric project, for their part, the Innu are supposed to resume paying their bills, but only after the slate is wiped clean - that is, once the $20,000-$40,000 charges due per customer are erased from the books.

It's unlikely that Penashue (the current MP for Labrador, as it happens) or any other of his meter-removing associates who have been siphoning electricity off the grid will object to the forgiveness of their huge bills, but not all of them are happy with the other parts of the arrangement.

One long-time leader who owes a mere $27,000 claims that 60 per cent of those who have not paid for 20 years are saying they don't want to start paying now. He said a good number of them are prepared to repeat the 1992 action by having their Hydro meters removed from their homes. Preparations are already underway, with experts in meter-disconnection coming to Labrador to perform the operation safely.

While Penashue deserves a great deal of credit for leading what turned out to be a highly successful act of civil disobedience, he is now on the other side of the meter. New Dawn is his baby and he vigorously combats any opposition shown towards it.

Penashue and the other original disconnectors said the Innu already owned the electricity they used because it was generated on stolen Innu land. That hasn't changed, but now the split is between those who believe New Dawn pays adequate compensation for the lost territory and those who think it doesn't, that the deal is inadequate in many ways, especially as it trades recompense for past harm for permission to destroy yet more Innu land.

Any predictions about how the situation will play out would likely fall as flat as the ones the premier made in 1992. However, one skein is worth watching. Today, as then, as Wells pointed out all those years ago, "unauthorized appropriation of electricity" is a criminal offence under federal law.

Twenty years ago, Penashue and the others were able to use their considerable political clout to avoid prosecution. This time around, without Penashue's support, will today's non-payers be able to keep out of court and out of jail?

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.


Organizations: New Dawn

Geographic location: Labrador, Sheshatshiu

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