The 4,000-strong Pessamit Innu community has filed an $11 billion lawsuit against Hydro-Québec for “total devastation of culture and way of life.”

The Innu, led by Chief Raphael Picard, are outraged at the slow pace of negotiations for compensation after losing access to much of their traditional homeland caused by the construction of 13 hydroelectric dams on their territory over the past five decades.

“They’re not looking for a treaty at this point,” said André Binette, spokesman for the Quebec band. “What they would like is serious negotiations of specific problems of this particular community.”

Binette says the dams are on traditional Innu territory so they would like to negotiate compensation in their particular case.

“Either that or we spend ten years in court and go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada,” Binette told the Nation. “That would not only be very costly for all parties, but it would create a lot of economic uncertainty in that particular area of Quebec. At one point I think the government of Quebec will realize that it is to its advantage to negotiate.”

Hydro-Québec is readying its defense for the lawsuit, which Binette says should be filed in late August.

“We will prepare a defense but we have to wait and see the study that is supposed to be made public at the same time that the request is filed in the Supreme Court,” said Marie Archambault, Media Relations Spokesperson for Hydro-Québec. “That study should explain where the amount comes from. What we can see now is there is a significant increase between 1998 and now. The amount requested in 1998 was $500 million.”

Binette said that the lawsuit would hopefully right a terrible wrong that has continued for decades.

“To understand the roots of all this you have to go back to the early 1970s when the Cree and the Innu were together in the Quebec Indian Association,” he said. “The Cree decided to go to court to stop the James Bay dams being built. That ended up with an out-of-court settlement called the JBNQA in 1975.”

The Innu, however, did not go to court, choosing instead to negotiate a treaty. They’ve been negotiating ever since. “But the Crees went to the courts again and got some results, which was the Paix des Braves in 2002,” Binette said.

“The Chief decided that going to court twice paid off for the Cree, but negotiating didn’t pay off for the Innu, so he’s decided to follow the strategies used successfully by the Crees.”

There are a dozen major hydro dams in the band’s territory near Baie Comeau, also known as Betsiamites, that supply from a quarter to a third of Quebec’s electricity needs.

“The consequences are basically total devastation of traditional culture and way of life,” said Binette. “The fact that these rivers were used by the Innu to go up to their forest lands and occupy their traditional homelands, that meant they were cut off from their traditional territory.”

He talked about revenue sharing in development on traditional Innu land and said that it would be a good proposition for all sides.

“The Innu, like the Crees and the Inuit over the years, have become more sophisticated business-wise. They’re better managers and they’ve begun to think more what they can do with that amount of money and they have an economic strategy. So I think we’re looking at a number of options at this point.”

The $11 billion number, he said, is considered a conservative one.

“The Crees got $250 million in 1975 and it was worth about $500 million in 1998 when revised with the cost of living and increases (when the original lawsuit was filed). There was no study done in 1998 to arrive at an amount at that time, but we do have a study now by two independent economists and they tell us $11 billion is a conservative figure.”

The Grand Council of the Crees is supportive. “Of course we sympathize with the Innu,” said Executive Director Bill Namagoose. “They haven’t been getting compensated for any development that’s been happening in their territory and they’re entitled to it. We support them in that aspect.”

Namagoose also said that there is Cree territory within the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement that overlaps into other First Nations territory, but they are ready to cooperate and negotiate.

“We’ve always been in a position to cooperate, but the onus is on the First Nation and Quebec to begin those negotiations,” he said. “The Cree would merely be a third or fourth party. We would just protect the Crees’ interest. We’ve already recognized overlaps with the Algonquin and are negotiating right now with the Inuit.”

Neither the provincial or federal offices of Indian Affairs would comment at length.

“We are going to wait until the case is presented before the courts to comment,” said Margot Geduld, Media Liaison for Quebec Indian Affairs. “We certainly respect the rights of Aboriginals to go before the courts, but we prefer that these things be negotiated out instead of a court situation.”

“If it’s before the courts it’s difficult to comment on that,” said Kevin Dobie, a spokesperson for federal Indian Affairs. “And if it’s even before going to the courts it’s even more difficult. However we would just reiterate our willingness to negotiate and recall the fact that in 2004 Chief Picard signed the agreement-in-principle. It covers, among other things, self government and within that agreement there are stipulations for compensation for these kinds of projects.”

Although Picard signed that AIP, it has not been ratified as a full treaty at present.

“One thing we have to remember, and most politicians forget that the two agreements signed with the Cree are out-of-court settlements,” said Binette. “The lesson there is that you can’t get a treaty or a major settlement for First Nations in Quebec without major litigation.”

Binette also mentioned that the Innu are becoming more self-sustaining with each passing day. They recently signed a joint-development agreement with Ontario wind energy company Northland Power and are hoping to get into the business of producing and selling the alternative energy source by 2010.

The Innu don’t oppose future development on their land, but stressed that they need to be consulted.

“What the Innu want is to change the nature of that development,” said Binette. “If you’re talking forestry, for instance, they want much stronger environmental protection and they obviously want a greater say in decisions regarding development so that would probably mean a decrease in logging.”