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Churchill River

The price of power

Original Innu name: Mishtashipu, meaning ‘big river’
Current official name: Churchill, for British war leader Winston Churchill
Source: Smallwood Reservoir in Central Labrador
Mouth: Atlantic Ocean
Direction of flow: east
Main Characteristic: exploitation of its power displaced a First Nation and created conflict between two provinces.

More on the Churchill River:
Churchill River:
The price of power

Cold comfort:
How the tiny ptarmigan survives winter

Low-level fright:
Fighter planes buzz the caribou herds

Life in Happy Valley-Goose Bay

Home Page:
The battered Innu culture strives to recover

The Lonely Season:
Traditional bush life in Labrador

Mega Water:
Churchill Falls generating station

To the Innu who travelled the interior of Labrador, the imposing waterfall was something to dread. According to some accounts, the Innu once believed that death could come from just looking at what today is called Churchill Falls. They were right, but in a way that the Innu could not have foreseen.

When industries and governments turned their attention to the riches and power of the Labrador interior in the middle of this century, they condemned Labrador's Native cultures to epidemics of disease and the loss of their food resources. Disease depleted the Native population and hunger resulted in Innu dependence on outsiders that seriously undermined their way of life.

A massive power development at Churchill Falls on the Churchill River flooded Innu hunting grounds and sacred sites. Pollution poisoned the fish they depended upon. It was the death of the Natives' sense of identity as self-sufficient survivors in a difficult land.

The huge Churchill Falls dam and underground power station is without doubt a great engineering achievement. Much of the electrical power ends up in New York, and nearly all of the profits go to Montreal. A long-term contract gives Hydro-Québec all of the Churchill Falls power at a low, fixed cost. Hydro-Québec resells the power at a great profit to electricity companies in the United States.

The long-term contract was not an equitable business deal for the government of Newfoundland and Labrador which tried but failed to have the contract cancelled by the Supreme Court of Canada. The biggest losers of all were the Innu.

Old photographs of the Innu show a healthy, apparently happy community that had learned to live in a harsh climate with sparse vegetation. Today, Labrador's 13,500 Innu are striving to emerge from cultural despair and to define for themselves a new identity that mixes the pride of their past with the benefits of modern technology.

The Innu are fighting against widespread addiction to alcohol and gasoline sniffing, family violence, and an economy controlled entirely by non-Native outsiders. In the process, the Innu are demanding rights to land and money so that they can rebuild their community.

With the help of non-Native experts, the Innu are employing archaeology, media relations and the Internet to ensure that their rights are respected in the future mining and power projects of Labrador.

Outsiders, investors, and governments are planning big mining developments in Labrador and more massive hydroelectric dams on the Churchill River. This time, though, there is greater public awareness of Native rights. And, because of their better political organization, Innu claims for land, financial compensation, and cultural respect will have to be taken into consideration.

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