Two Innu communities, one in Québec and one in Labrador, are suing Québec’s provincial crown corporation, Hydro-Québec, for over $6 billion, claiming that the reservoirs and transmission lines of hydro-electric development have flooded and destroyed part of their traditional territories.
The lawsuits highlight some key issues: the rights of Indigenous peoples and their interface with provincial and federal governments; and the growing need for more and cleaner sources of electric power. They also bring into greater focus a rarely mentioned cause of deforestation in Canada, drowning trees.
While Canada’s deforestation rate of 0.01% is one of the lowest in the world, and the flooding of forest land to create hydro reservoirs in 2020 was responsible for a mere 2% of that (1,101 hectares,[i] the impact of hydro development can be hugely significant. For example, some 35,000 hectares of forest was submerged in 1993 when Hydro-Québec’s Laforge-1 reservoir was commissioned, and another 28,000 hectares submerged in 2006 when the Eastman-1 reservoir came on line. They bumped the national deforestation total by 41% and 36% respectively in those years. More recent examples of hydro development include British Columbia’s Site C and the Muskrat Falls project in Labrador,[ii]
Then there’s Québec premier Francois Legault’s ambition to build new dams in Québec to meet the expected future demand for power, including for electric vehicle batteries. Maybe the province will even join hands with Labrador and the federal government in a joint venture at Labrador’s Gull Island site. If any of this happens, Canada’s overall deforestation rate will certainly spike upward again.
There are many issues and trade-offs here: serious and extensive consultation and possible agreement and reparations for any Indigenous land involved; the clear need for more and cleaner power sources into the future; and the timely reminder that many land-use decisions effectively remove Canadian forest land permanently.
We don’t just remove trees for growing agricultural crops; for mining, and oil and gas projects; or for subdivisions and ski hills and golf courses. We also drown trees for hydro development. Those trees are not coming back.
[i] The State of Canada’s Forests, Annual Report 2022.