Q&A about the Romaine River

What is the Romaine?

The Romaine River is one of Quebec’s longest and wildest rivers. Originating in the highlands near the Quebec-Labrador border, it tumbles impetuously for almost five hundred kilometers, traversing dense boreal forest populated by bear and woodland caribou before emptying into the North Shore of the St. Lawrence on the site of the Mingan Archipelago National Park.

The lower stretches of the Romaine serve as a spawning ground for the endangered Atlantic salmon, and the flow of river-borne nutrients plays an important role in sustaining the marine ecosystem that is located in the National Park.

In light of the extensive hydroelectric development that has occurred in other parts of Quebec, the Romaine stands out as the last large undammed river in the province that is accessible by road from Quebec City or Montreal. The river is cherished by paddlers, scientists and outdoor enthusiasts as a key repository for biodiversity, and as a milieu of rare natural beauty.

What threatens the Romaine River?

In the spring of 2009 Jean Charest’s Liberal government launched an 8 billion dollar hydroelectric project Romaine River. Between now and 2020, Hydro Québec plans to build four large hydroelectric dams, as well as 500 culverts, along the river with a total generating capacity of 1500MW. The four dams will flood 278km2 of virgin boreal forest. In addition, 227km of new roads will be built into the interior, providing access for forestry and mining companies, like Medallion Resources Limited who plan to mine the area for iron and titanium. In addition, over 500 kilometers of transmissions lines will be built, although their construction has not yet received environmental approval or permission from Innu communities.

Jean Charest calls hydro-power “Blue Gold”. Ironically, this is the same name given to Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke’s book about the corporate theft of the world’s water. Hydroelectricity, at this scale, is not clean power. What threatens the Romaine River is a growing culture of over-consumption.

Where is the energy going?

Hydro-Québec’s spokesperson for the project, Benoît Gagnon, says the project is necessary to meet both Quebec’s growing energy needs and export demands from New England, New York and Ontario. Recently, in a quest to promote hydroelectricity, Charest’s government claims that Québec’s green energy will replace coal plants in export markets, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, many US states do not consider large-scale hydroelectricity as green and are seeking their own solutions, such as energy conservation.

In March 2008, Charest’s government signed a deal with the US aluminum giant Alcoa to provide them with subsidized electricity. The deal, which lasts until 2040, guarantees Alcoa a rate of 4.2 cents per kilowatt-hour (Gazette, 2008).

What are our alternatives to damming the Romaine?

Save megawatts. Save the Romaine River.

Alongside changes towards truly renewable sources of energy in Quebec, we must also achieve greater energy efficiency and conservation. By implementing a conservation based energy strategy with full public accountability, we can free up existing electricity instead of building four super-expensive dams along the free-flowing Romaine River.

What should this conservation based energy strategy include?

Several areas of improvement are ready for the kind of investment the Charest government is putting aside for the Romaine project. Currently, heating and hot water represents roughly 70% (50% and 20% respectively) of an average household’s energy needs in Quebec[1]. Houses of the future will be better insulated to minimize heat loss, utilize geothermal technology and thermal solar panels to reduce the need for electrical current when it comes to heating, cooling and hot water, better oriented to increase passive solar energy and lastly, less resource intensive to reduce overall extraction, transportation, transformation and processing of materials. Our list of demands includes the implementation of a system of government grants and incentives to support small-scale renewable energies, which would incorporate measures to support the achievement of more energy autonomous buildings.

In combination with ‘greener’ housing in the years to come, established homeowners and property owners should benefit from a more vigorous and properly financed execution of chapter E-1.1 of the Quebec Building Act[2]. Redirected investments equal to those ready to be put towards the Romaine project would allow far-reaching support for retrofitting projects as well as incentives to purchase energy efficient appliances. Also, money-back incentives towards energy reduction at home and at work may provide extra motivation to Quebeckers.

Education must play a pivotal role when it comes to the important cultural changes that we believe are necessary to achieve greater energy efficiency and conservation in Quebec. It is important for our society as a whole to understand how much electricity our current lifestyles require. According to the United NationsEnergy Statistics Yearbook 2006, our province is listed as the highest consumer of electricity per capita in the world after Iceland. Calculated once again per capita, consumption of electricity reached 27 518 kwh in 2005 according to a Resources naturelles et Faune Québec report. Overall, aluminum refineries accounted for a quarter of the electricity consumed in Quebec[3]. Will we allow this trend to continue?

Measures should include the installation of smart meters in all homes within a reasonable timeframe. Studies have shown that electricity consumed by the entire house can reduce consumption by 12%[4]. Recently, the Ontario government introduced legislation which calls for the installation of smart meters in every home by the end of 2010 at a cost of approximately 250 $ each[5]. Overall, we should seek to ensure that information related to our energy consumption and its costs flow as freely as the Romaine River across all ages and sectors.L’Agence de l’efficacité énergétique – which does do include large-scale hydroelectric projects on their list of renewable energy sources – can and should play an important role in ensuring a brighter future.

What about First Nations?

The Romaine River is central to the economy and identity of the Innu First Nation. Despite past policies of assimilation, many of today’s Innu maintain a semi-nomadic lifestyle focused around the winter caribou hunt, salmon fishing, and the harvesting of medicinal plants in the area drained by the Romaine.

The territory around the Romaine is subject to an ongoing land claims negotiation between the Innu and Canadian Federal Government. Unfortunately, large-scale development projects, which alter the makeup and potential uses of the land have proceeded, over Innu objections, while the land claims case has stagnated. In light of earlier legal setbacks suffered by aboriginal communities while contesting hydro development, affected Innu communities have frequently, though not always, chosen to sign compensation agreements with Hydro Quebec rather than challenging the utility directly through the courts.

The Innu Nation consists of 16 000 members residing in villages dispersed over a broad section of Labrador and Eastern Quebec.

The village of Ekuanitshit is located a few kilometers from the banks of the Romaine River, and is home to Rita Mestokosho, a published poetess and council member who is spearheading an international campaign to stop the construction of four dams on the Romaine.

Although Ekuanitshit recently signed a compensation package with Hydro Quebec, the Innu community of Uashat-Maliotenam, located near Sept Iles has petitioned a Quebec court for an injunction to halt the project because of the damage that the transmission lines connecting the dams to the power grid are expected to cause to their territory: http://www.radio-canada.ca/regions/est-quebec/2009/02/06/007-la-romaine.asp

In Matimekush, near Shefferville, local Innu have started a successful eco-tourism business, known as Aventures Ashini, that offers camping expeditions and culturally interpretative tours along the spectacular and undammed Georges River. It is tempting to think that if the Romaine is preserved, a similar initiative could be started here, thus offering much-needed long-term, meaningful employment to Ekuanitshit and other nearby Innu communities.

[1] http://www.aetaconstruction.com/dossier%20pr%C3%A9lude.pdf


[3] http://www.mrnf.gouv.qc.ca/energie/statistiques/statistiques-consommation-electricite.jsp

[4] L. McClelland and S. Cook, ‘Energy Conservation Effects of Continuous In-home Feedback in All-electric Homes’, Journal of Environmental Systems, Vol.9 (1980) pp.169-73;

J.K. Bobson and J.D. Griffin, ‘Conservation Effect of Immediate Electricity Cost Feedback on Residential Consumption Behaviour, in Proceedings of the 7th ACEEE Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings(ACEEE, Washington, DC, 1992);

[5] www.hydroonenetworks.com/en/community/projects/smart_meters/faqs_new.htm

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