“Where did you come from?” is the first question 73-year-old Oscar Kistabish learned to ask when first meeting someone. 

“In my head, we imagine where you are from, it’s very important so that’s the first thing we ask,” Kistabish said during a Zoom interview. “I heard that from my parents asking about the people, ‘where are you from?'”

Kistabish is from Anishnaabe Aki, the indigenous Anishnaabe lands in the western province of Québec, Canada where he lives in a rural family camp about 30 miles south of Matagami. His camp is one of many passed down retreats within the perimeters of what is called a trapline, a family territory passed down throughout generations for hunting and trapping.

“Our trapline is our ancestors . . . most of my family trap there for, I don’t know how many years, a thousand years,” he said. 

Traplines are traditionally accessed by waterways in birchbark canoes, using rivers as highways to navigate through dense boreal forests. Encountering someone new in these isolated trapline territories that can span more than 50 miles is a rare occurrence, which is why the first question is usually, “where did you come from?”

The Anishnaabe have sustained themselves on their territory’s natural resources for thousands of years, and Kistabish estimates that about 50% of his diet consists of beaver meat which he supplements with moose, rabbit and lynx.

But he misses muskrat, which has been increasingly difficult to find as he’s gotten older, attributing decades of development by the Québec government impacting animal habitats.

When Kistabish was 6 years old, his father kept repeating, “they’re coming,” referring to construction crews building winter roads near Pikogan, an Anishnaabe community where Kistabish grew up.

These preliminary roads would eventually foster the development of Route 109, connecting Amos to Matagami in the early ’60s. Kistabish said that once the provincial highway was established, logging, mining and hydropower quickly followed.

“Before, we didn’t have nobody, before 1960,” Kistabish said. “When they opened the road, they opened the hydroline too, the transmission line. The hydropower line has brought a lot of people, all the kind of enterprises, all the kind of companies, many kinds. 

According to Kistabish, these developments did not have the consent or consultation of the Anishnaabe First Nation which has recently formed a coalition with the Innu and Atikamekw. This coalition is publicizing longstanding grievances toward provincially-owned public utility company, Hydro-Québec, for exploiting their ancestral lands.

At the forefront of this coalition’s contestation is the New England Clean Energy Corridor, a joint project between Hydro-Québec and Avangrid, the parent company of Central Maine Power. The energy project would bring Québec hydropower to Massachusetts via a 145-mile transmission corridor through Western Maine.

The Anishnaabe, Innu and Atikamekw First Nations claim that 36% of Hydro-Québec’s power is illegally generated from their ancestral lands. The above map provided by Hydro-Québec, shows the company’s main hydropower facilities and transmission lines. The red and green lines indicate transmission lines that will connect to Central Maine Power’s transmission corridor to be constructed across 145 miles in western Maine. Hydro-Québec map

CMP’s corridor currently faces opposition in Maine from conservation groups, including the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Natural Resources Council of Maine. The Sierra Club Maine is pursuing a lawsuit challenging the the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers‘ environmental review of the project.

A petition is also circulating in Western Maine towns affected by corridor construction that calls for legislative approval of transmission lines longer than 50 miles. It would also call for a ban on high-impact transmission lines in the Upper Kennebec region.

In a Dec. 2 letter addressed to Chellie Pingree, Maine’s 1st congressional representative, the First Nation coalition reviewed their land rights recognized by Section 25 of Canada’s Constitution Act of 1982. The letter also outlined Hydro-Québec’s damning and harvesting of hydropower from their lands.

“In the context of the sale of electricity to the United States, 36% of the power offered in New England has been acquired illegitimately,” the letter reads. “In this regard, we demand the prior respect of our constitutional rights before any sale of electricity in the United States. Otherwise, we intend to enforce our rights through the courts.”

The coalition hopes to gain U.S. awareness about the energy involved in the NECEC project before construction of the corridor, which CMP hopes to start mid-January. The coalition has also joined forces with Labrador First Nations, forming the Assembly of First Nations Québec-Labrador.

AFNQL asked Hydro-Québec for reparations and compensation with regard to the hydro facilities producing energy on their lands, in a Nov. 9 letter addressed to CEO Sophie Brochu.

Hydro-Québec Communications Spokesperson Lynn St-Laurent said that the company preferred to limit public comments on these complex issues.

“We note however that the hydroelectric facilities referred to in the AFNQL letter and located in the province of Québec were built on public lands several decades ago, sometimes even before the creation of Hydro-Québec,” St-Laurent said in an email. “Their construction took place after all the required governmental authorizations had been issued and in compliance with the legal framework applicable at the time.”

This photo simulation shows the view northwest from Wilson Hill Road in West Forks toward the proposed CMP transmission line. Rendering/simulation courtesy of Central Maine Power

This concept of public lands that St-Laurent refers to is rejected by Marcel Boivin, former chief of Wemotaci, an Atikamekw First Nation community in southwestern Québec.

Boivin speaks his mother tongue and French. Louis Archambault, the coalition’s media coordinator, provided translation services during a Zoom interview.

For Boivin, a history of damming what was often considered public land is embedded in Atikamekw oral traditions. Boivin’s grandfather is from Coucoucache, an Atikamekw reservation that once spanned 387 acres along the Saint-Maurice River, about 30 miles southeast of Wemotaci.

His family had a trapline camp at Baie de la Jolie where they can access the smaller Windigo River for trapping, fishing and hunting. In 1930, Shawinigan Water & Power Company began construction of the Rapide-Blanc generating station, consisting of a reservoir, dam and hydroelectric plant, in Atikamekw ancestral lands along the Saint-Maurice River.

Boivin said his people had no warning of this project, which unexpectedly raised water levels, devastating communities and traditional waterways that supported their way of life. The oral histories describe houses floating, drowned gravesites and floating, dead beavers that had perished inside their lodges.

This story is not unique to the Wemataci community, with a similar history taking place in central Québec at the Gouin Reservoir constructed by SWPC in 1916. This resulted in the emergency relocation of Obedjiwan, another Atikamekw community, on three different occasions.

The disintegration of Québec’s privatized electrical companies in the ’40s led to Hydro-Québec’s eventual 1963 absorption of SWPC and its power houses, such as the Rapide-Blanc generating station. This station is one of 33 power houses that the coalition is claiming Hydro-Québec is operating on ancestral lands without consent or compensation.

These testimonies and the legislative history regarding the First Nations’ land claims are being compiled on the coalition’s website, Québechydroclash.com.

Avangrid did not provide a comment specific to these power houses and the coalition’s claims that NECEC’s power would be generated illegally. President and CEO of NECEC LLC Transmission, Thorn Dickinson, instead referred to Hydro-Québec agreements that have resulted in positive impacts to unspecified First Nation communities.

“Our partner has signed multiple agreements with Indigenous communities over the past four decades which take into account their values, legal rights and interests, and cultural and environmental concerns,” Dickinson wrote in an email. “These agreements enable active participation in Hydro-Québec projects and have led to positive economic benefits for the communities.”

Boivin said that he has not seen these positive impacts as many of the coalition’s communities live without access to electricity and running water, and their traditional ways of life have been severely impacted by hydropower development.

While Boivin spoke, he whittled a handle for a traditional curved knife that he will use to craft snowshoes from birch wood at an upcoming educational workshop. He stressed that they are an adaptive people, but the Québec government’s exploitation of their natural resources continues to impact Atikamekw communities.

“We gave a lot, but we never have anything in return,” Boivin said.


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