Large scale hydro is not clean energy

I sent a letter today responding to a Portland Press Herald Maine Voices column about Central Maine Power’s push for transmission lines through Maine to bring Canadian hydro power to Massachusetts.   I agree with the column, by the way, but an issue that troubles me is the statement often repeated in the Press Herald that Canadian hydropower is clean renewable energy.  Large scale hydropower cannot truly be considered clean and renewable energy.

First of all, large scale hydro floods huge areas of the best land in the northern climate—river valleys that are home to the most diverse plant and animal life in the region. The resulting reservoirs are not the same as natural rivers or lakes. They become contaminated with methyl-mercury, poisoning the fish and any who eat them. Methane gas is emitted from the decomposition of flooded plant life. And because of silt build up, the dams may not last more than several decades.

Secondly, these dams are being built in the territories of indigenous Cree, Innu, and Inuit peoples, with a destructive effect on their culture, lifestyle, food sources, hunting and fishing, burial sites, and ultimately, their sovereignty. The LaGrande project was built in the 1970s without any consultation with the Cree or Inuit, and then later projects have been and still are initiated without giving any true choice to the people who have lived along these rivers for millenia.

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[La Grande 1 Generating Station]

We know that Maine Governor LePage is not interested in renewable energy, nor is he concerned with the rights and sovereignty of indigenous peoples, as witnessed in this government’s actions toward the Penobscot people and their river. But the rest of us who live in Maine must be better than that.  We should support true renewable energy, and also support the human rights of indigenous people both here and in the lands to the north.

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Reconnecting To a Broken Land

Broken Tree DSC01792For several years, I was active in the struggle of the Cree, Inuit and Innu people against hydroelectric development in Northern Quebec. The traditional way of life for each was one of hunting and fishing and gathering. In my imagination, I had envisioned small bands of people roaming over vast wilderness areas at random, looking for game. What I learned was different.

Each small family band had very specific territory—certain rivers and waterways, certain areas whose terrain was utterly familiar to them, whose beavers were counted by them, where traplines had been set out for generations. When the LaGrande project was built in 1970, those beloved lands were flooded, and lost to them, with their ancestors’ graves, the memories and stories of love and new life and home. I learned that even the migrating birds return to the very sedges from which they had departed the previous season. They, like the Cree, had lost their homes.

Because I am writing in a broken land, there are things I should clarify. I am a white woman, and I am also related, by matrilineal ancestry, to the Innu people who are indigenous to land now called Quebec and Labrador. My great great great grandmother was an Innu woman. She married a Scottish trapper who worked for the Hudson Bay Company in Quebec. His name was Peter Macleod, and he called her Marie de Terre Rompue, which translates, Marie of Broken Land.

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Grandmother Yvonne arriving in Detroit

Having these Indian ancestors doesn’t make me an Indian in today’s world. My ancestors were assimilated into the white community, first in Quebec, and then in the United States when my grandmother Yvonne came to live in Detroit. Actually, assimilation itself was part of the long campaign against Indian people. 

But this story created a broken place in my heart, a need to explore and understand the history and to find healing for the present. It helped to spark in me a deep feeling for Indigenous peoples. As a young adult I was drawn into activism in solidarity with American Indian struggles, and that has remained an important influence throughout my life. When I was able to travel to Nitasinnan, the land of the Innu, I felt some sense of place, a sense of the ghosts of my ancestors in the land.

But Indian ancestry is not necessary for the work of reconnecting to the land. Indian people have a belief that every person and being on this earth are related to each other. All of us can be part of the work of rebuilding our relationships where they have become torn and frayed.