“All of our rivers are arteries, we live off of these things.”
Pakesso Mukash alludes to the rivers of Northern Quebec seamlessly. He is a Cree musician, from the last remaining Northern settlement that still has a river flowing through it. At Great Whale River, Mukash says, legends are embedded in their land, like the legend of a doorway within a waterfall that leads to another dimension.
But there is an urgently violent element to this story: a history of unrelenting colonialism. And spiritual connections to the land do not mean that indigenous communities exist in some fictional and romanticized nature-utopia. To many of us, in cities and at universities, colonialism is confined to the past – it is anything but relevant to us. Colonialism seems historical and abstract, a subject whose demise is so far gone we cannot trace it or sense it, let alone feel responsible for it. To others, though, it remains a constant force to push up against or be swallowed by.
In Quebec, the provincial government has devised a strategy by the name of Plan Nord to systematically exploit the resources of the North. Designed to be carried out over a 25-year period with $80 billion in public and private funding, Plan Nord will affect an area of land that is more than twice the size of France by taking advantage of the land through mining, constructing hydroelectric dams, logging, foresting, and building infrastructure to support these activities. Generalizing the detrimental effects and responses by indigenous communities to Plan Nord is impossible – complex policies will affect an untold number of people in ways we cannot understand easily, let alone immediately determine. The indigenous communities whose lands the Plan will colonize – a territory of more than 1.2 million square kilometres – include more than 10,000 Inuit, 16,000 Cree, over 16,000 Innu, and around 1,000 Naskapi.
It is both the most pressing and – in the anglo university world – the least spoken-about issue. It is the Tar Sands of the East: dispossession of indigenous communities and destruction of the environment in one. Remaining unaware and apathetic means learning nothing from the long history of violence, forcible loss of identity, and racism that characterized, and continues to characterize, colonialism.
With Plan Nord, mining companies and a far-off government whose priorities are linked to these same companies are given access to lands that, already occupied, are only shrinking. Lands like Mukash’s, and the legends that grew from them, are being forever altered – excavated and mined in ways that cannot be undone. Glossing over loss of traditional identity is as shallow as the attempts by mining companies to “restore” by planting trees on top of destroyed land. Restoration cannot take place when something has been systematically burned.
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The struggles of indigenous communities against Plan Nord are rich and diverse. While Plan Nord has in some ways become a gag order, pockets of vibrant opposition have emerged. Just this week, a group of young Innu maintained a blockade of Route 138 in protest of the Romaine River hydroelectric dam being constructed by Hydro-Québec. For millennia, the Innu have fished for Romaine River salmon. The $8-billion construction of the Romaine Complex, the first phase of Plan Nord, includes four large hydroelectric stations, dikes, spillways, canals, and 279 square kilometres of reservoir. Fighting for the same cause earlier this year, 13 women were imprisoned for blockading the route in protest. Hydro-Québec proceeded with building despite the fact that the community voted down two referenda regarding compensation packages. That around forty Innu women walked more than 900 kilometres to Montreal in protest following these events sheds light on the extreme dedication to resistance.
Similarly, this summer at the 36th Conference of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers in Burlington, Vermont, an Innu First Nations Delegation traveled down to vocalize their opposition to Hydro-Québec and Plan Nord. On a different note, hundreds from the Algonquin community at Barriere Lake spent this summer resisting the clear-cutting of their forests – and destruction of traditional hunting lands – by a Montreal-based company being carried out without their consent. In some cases, the government or corporation consults only the ‘officially elected’ representatives of a community, who some have vocalized are prone to pay-offs, and are not necessarily selected through traditional means of appointing leaders. These are only a handful of manifestations of the opposition that made their way to the media.
This, of course, is not to imply that all indigenous communities are against the Plan. As Mohawk activist Ellen Gabriel has explained, mired in dire economic circumstances, and sometimes receiving economic incentives from corporations, many communities have (at least in an official political capacity) signed off on Plan Nord. But truly respecting indigenous prosperity does not mean providing jobs whose temporary and hazardous nature may push communities into even more trying conditions. Mining companies may come and go, may attempt to fulfill the insatiable thirst for resources and the resulting destruction, but, in the end, large sums of money cannot compensate for the loss of culture.
Dispossession has been a long time in the making. It seems gold and silver will always be prized without consequences. Proponents of Plan Nord claim that the development will “create” 20,000 jobs in industries such as construction and engineering, overlooking the shortcomings and sexism of this supposed economic growth. These jobs are disproportionately given to men – women make up less than 1.2 per cent of the work force in construction, and less than 14 per cent in the mining sector – not to mention the huge income inequality and higher number of women who drop out of schools.
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Plan Nord is mired in the same heated nationalist rhetoric that surrounded the election. Some assume that because it was the former Premier Jean Charest who initiated Plan Nord, it is now something of the past. Pauline Marois and her PQ government did take issue with Plan Nord, but not because of its blatant disregard for indigenous sovereignty; rather, because it was a bad deal for Quebec. The Plan is often seen as Quebec taking control of its resources. Some have proposed that Plan Nord is, therefore, only a means of colonizing the North so as to ensure the land is firmly Quebecois, should a referendum to secede transpire. The irony of a sovereigntist political party wholly overlooking indigenous sovereignty is endless.
As members of a McGill community, we play an important part in this reality. Privatization is a virus, nothing is sacred and everything is affected. The public university has sold itself to the private sector, to those whose primary purpose is the unrestrained pursuit of profit. Here, mining companies are great friends – our glorious benefactors whose belligerent greed is entirely overlooked. This happy ignorance has repercussions in which we are directly implicated.
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My perspectives on indigenous struggles are necessarily those of an outsider – intellectual and not lived. I can only try to understand the trauma of colonialism from afar, and recognize that the most I can possibly do is work to form solidarity networks and unassumingly provide support on indigenous peoples’ terms. We cannot continue speaking about the North as though it is an abstract concept, open to endless exploitation. Dispossession cannot be undone. It is incumbent on us to see the faces that are standing up to the concrete destruction, those who are literally putting their bodies in its way.
Jacqueline Brandon is a U2 History student and a Commentary editor at The Daily. The opinions expressed here are her own. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.