Peter Penashue became the first Innu ever elected to Parliament. His history-making journey didn’t end there as Prime Minister Steven Harper added him to his cabinet. Penashue in one fell swoop became the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and President of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada. Membership in the Privy Council is for life unless the Governor General withdraws the appointment.
Penashue is also the only Conservative elected in Labrador and Newfoundland this time around. The NDP had courted Penashue but he decided joining the Conservative Party would be the best choice for his riding, once a Liberal safe seat.
Given Penshue’s past many might have been surprised that he achieved such a high prominence in Canada’s new government.
“Peter’s an old friend,” said Bill Namagoose, Executive Director for the Grand Council of the Crees. Namagoose met Penashue during the battle over Hydro-Québec’s proposed Great Whale Hydroelectric Project. During this time the Innu had their own battles with intrusions into their traditional territory. Penashue was one of the leaders in opposing low-level military flight training in Labrador. The Crees and the Innu traded information and strategies.
Penashue was only 26 when he became president of the Innu Nation. He was the Grand Chief from 1990-1997 and his leadership would be tested. It was through his hard work and belief in people that the dire straits of the Innu community of Davis Inlet gained international attention.
Even though he was outspoken and a proponent of Innu rights and interests Penashue always said that his people must have the opportunity to meaningfully participate in all opportunities. So as well as resolving the Innu’s long-standing land claims, he facilitated the development of the Voisey’s Bay nickel mine. Learning from the past, Penashue pursued and achieved a partnership role for his people in the Lower Churchill Falls Hydroelectric Project. The Innu now had guaranteed employment for its members and revenue for the entire nation through both projects.
The Lower Churchill Falls Project has caused some controversy for him. Penashue’s own mother has said she will continue to oppose the project as she is worried about its impact on the land and wildlife.
In Quebec, Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois has publically questioned Penashue’s objectivity. She was upset that he had been appointed to the job of maintaining good relations between the provinces. Marois said that Quebec and Newfoundland with Labrador are currently at odds over two issues: the hydroelectric development of Lower Churchill Falls and exploiting the resources of the Old Harry gas deposit.
The Churchill Falls project contract was negotiated with Hydro-Québec for a 65-year timespan, ending in the year 2041. Hydro-Québec has annual revenues of about $1.7 billion while Newfoundland and Labrador receive $63 million. The Lower Churchill Falls Project isn’t a part of this contract so Quebec refused to allow Newfoundland or Labrador to transmit electricity through its grid. As a result an alternative route is being developed that will bypass Quebec.
With the Old Harry gas deposit, Newfoundland and Labrador has already laid claim to the bulk of the offshore oil reserve and granted a permit to a company to explore the area. Before the election, Quebec and the Harper government had tentatively struck a deal where Quebec would receive royalties from the project if it passed an environmental review.
Penashue, now 47, shows that the days and methods of civil disobedience are a tool that may be discarded when it is no longer needed or beneficial. Though a traditionalist in many ways, he has never stopped looking forward to the future.
Penashue is now in the nationtal spotlight and no doubt many Canadians, among them Aboriginal leaders and peoples, will be looking to see if he lives up to his reputation. The past has been one of fairness for all the people of Labrador and Newfoundland. It is expected by supporters that he will do the same for all Canadians as the latest member of the cabinet.
Penashue isn’t the only Canadian Aboriginal to be named to the cabinet – he joins Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq, who was renamed Minister of Health by Harper.