A major legal hurdle that threatened to jeopardize Hydro-Québec's $6.5-billion La Romaine hydroelectric project has been cleared with the signing of an agreement in principle with Innu leaders.
The Innu of Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam, located near Sept-Îles in the province's North Shore region, agreed to drop legal action in return for a $125-million compensation package from the provincial utility.
The Innu also signed an agreement with the Quebec government that gives them a stake in all future natural resources development on their ancestral land. As part of the deal, the Quebec government agreed to "facilitate" talks with mining and forestry companies in ensuring that the Innu of Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam receive a share of the profits from future development of the land. According to the Innu, this was the key to forging the deal with Hydro-Québec.
"This shows that when we use dialogue rather than litigation, we can achieve agreements," said Pierre Corbeil, Quebec's Minister Responsible for Aboriginal Affairs. "Dialogue is the surest way of getting quick results."
The Innu of Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam are convinced that the agreement in principle with the province will allow them to reap major financial benefits from several mining projects proposed on their ancestral land.
"This is why we have initiated discussions with the mining companies of the North Shore region and we are counting heavily on Quebec's support to ensure a constructive dialogue with the province's economic development partners," said Georges-Ernest Grégoire, chief of the Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam Innu.
The financial package proposes to pay the 4,000 Innu an $80-million cash payment spread over 50 years that will be invested in community economic development funds. Another $45-million will be granted in construction contracts and jobs to Innu companies and individuals.
The Innu community was initially demanding $300-million in compensation. Hydro-Québec had offered $2-million.
Details of the agreement have yet to be worked out. The parties have set March 11, 2011, as the deadline to negotiate the final arrangements.
The agreement will then be submitted for the Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam Innu's approval in a referendum to be held in April of this year.
Hydro-Québec spokesperson Guy Litalien refused to comment until the final agreement is ratified.
The lawyer representing the Innu community, Jean-François Bertrand, explained that the agreement only involves Hydro-Québec's 1,550 megawatt La Romaine power project. He said the Innu near Sept-Îles will continue their land-claim suit against the provincial and federal governments. They are seeking more than $2-billion in compensation for other hydro, mining and forestry projects undertaken on their ancestral lands over several years without their consent.
"This agreement settles only part of the dispute," Mr. Bertrand said. "The long-standing lawsuit against Quebec and Ottawa that goes as far back as the end of the 1990s is still ongoing."
Chief Grégoire expressed the hope of reaching a sweeping agreement with Quebec that would settle all of the Innu community's land claims, similar to the landmark deal called the "Paix des Braves" signed between the province and the Quebec Crees in February of 2002.
That agreement granted the 15,000 Crees of Northern Quebec a $3.5-billion financial package over 50 years, as well as a share of the profits from future natural resources development on their land. In return, the Crees dropped their multimillion-dollar lawsuits against Quebec and agreed to the construction of a 1,200-megawatt hydroelectric project on the Rupert and Eastmain Rivers.
"Our objective is clear: invite [Premier Jean Charest]to conclude a Paix des Braves with the Innus," Chief Grégoire said.