Hydro-Quebec’s power generation, Indigenous culture wired into tangled past
By Zachary Matson
The scale of Hydro-Quebec’s portfolio of dams and reservoirs is staggering. The projects have remade the social and natural landscape of northern Canada.
The impoundments, many of which lie in vast boreal forests more than 500 miles north of Montreal, dwarf Adirondack lakes. Quebec’s largest reservoir, Caniapiscau Reservoir, covers 1,600 square miles, almost four times the size of Lake Champlain.
Before the Caniapiscau River was dammed in the early 1980s, the original Caniapiscau Lake covered 180 square miles.
In the northern Quebec watershed of the La Grande River, Hydro-Quebec has 11 dams and eight impoundments, which cover a combined area more than twice the total area of protected wilderness in the Adirondacks.
In 2005, while creating the Eastmain-1 Reservoir on the La Grande, Hydro-Quebec flooded 113 square miles of mature forest, an area larger than Pharaoh Lake Wilderness, and 70 square miles of wetlands, according to a 2018 study.
In total, the reservoirs under Hydro-Quebec’s control are big enough to cover an area larger than the Adirondack Park’s over 6 million acres, topping a combined surface area of 10,000 square miles. The “green battery of North America” eclipses the footprint of the Adirondack Park.
In the neighboring province of Labrador, where Hydro-Quebec has a long-term purchase agreement for the energy produced at the Churchill Falls Generating Station, the Smallwood Reservoir covers more than 2,500 square miles, 55 times the size of Lake George. Diverting the Grand River in Labrador choked off the water to Grand Falls, also known as Churchill Falls, reducing the monumental waterfall to a trickle and leaving behind a deep channel carved into rock by an ancient erosive force.
Roberta Frampton Benefiel, the Grand Riverkeeper, a nonprofit established to protect the river, also known as Churchill River, said she had a chance to see the falls “in most of its glory.”
“They had to repair one of the dikes in a couple of places and they opened up the gates and allowed the river to flow back—some of it, not all of it—to flow back over the falls,” Benefiel said from her home in Labrador. “It was fabulous. There’s a big rainbow that forms right over the entire valley when the water is flowing, but about two thirds of the water was coming down, and one side of the rock face was just there.”
Smallwood Reservoir, like other Canadian impoundments, flooded areas of Indigenous land, including Innu travel routes and hunting campsites and habitat for salmon, beaver and caribo—all essential to Innu life—poisoning fish with methylmercury. Families that had lived in the area for generations lost their canoes, traps and other tools. Ancestral burial grounds were drowned. The Innu Nation, which in 2020 filed a $4 billion claim against Hydro-Quebec in Canadian courts, was never consulted.
“Our elders suffered,” Innu Grand Chief Etienne Rich said at the time. “They lost so much. We feel that loss today, we inherited that loss. It is time to make that right.”
A few days later, Innu lawyers submitted comments to New York officials about the nation’s opposition to the proposed Champlain Hudson Power Express project.
“It would be difficult to overstate the profound anger, dismay, and sadness that the Innu feel about the flooding of the Meshikamau area, and the destruction,” the nation said.
The lawyers highlighted New York’s commitment to addressing the historical harms committed against marginalized communities in its climate law.
“The project of building equitable and environmentally responsible power and distribution systems cannot be built on underlying injustices,” they argued.
Other Indigenous leaders from Canada have spoken out against CHPE.
Savanna McGregor, acting grand chief of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council, emphasized “the damages done by Hydro-Quebec on our unceded ancestral territory.”
“There is much at stake,” McGregor wrote. “Hydro-Quebec and the Quebec government’s long-lasting violation of our rights is such that our First Nations are slowly being destroyed.”
Hydro-Quebec has sought to improve its relationship with Indigenous communities, entering into joint ownership of the new transmission line that will connect CHPE to its existing network with the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake. Grand Chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer in supportive comments submitted to the PSC noted the concerns of other Indigenous groups.
“While these claims must clearly be addressed with the relevant authorities, it is important to point out that the hydropower installations in question were not built as a part of the CHPE project. The only new infrastructure to be built is the Hertel Line [connecting CHPE to Hydro-Quebec’s network]. Any other discussions on claims should be dealt with separately from this project,” Sky-Deer wrote.
Hydro-Quebec spokesperson Lynn St-Laurent in a statement noted that all of North America’s history of treatment of Indigenous people is “far from perfect” and highlighted some of the company’s agreements to address the concerns of Indigenous communities and develop renewable projects in tandem.
“One of Hydro-Quebec’s key priorities is to maintain long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with Indigenous communities and nations where we carry out operations,” St-Laurent said.
Sign up for the “Water Line” newsletter, with weekly updates about pollution, climate change and development’s impacts on the Adirondacks’ lakes, rivers and streams.