Innu in Labrador will vote Thursday on a controversial deal that includes a land claim settlement, and also helps clear the way for the Lower Churchill hydro megaproject.

The so-called New Dawn agreement has been in the works for years, and must be ratified before compensation can flow for destruction caused by the Churchill Falls energy project that started in the 1960s.


Labrador MP Peter Penashue, who played a key role in negotiating the New Dawn deal, says the majority view will have to be respected. ((CBC))

But it is the pending Lower Churchill project — which will see more than 40 square kilometres of traditional Innu land flooded to make way for a dam at Muskrat Falls on the Churchill River — that has divided people in Labrador's two small Innu communities.

Elizabeth Penashue, an Innu elder from Sheshatshiu, has long opposed a project she knows could mean jobs and opportunities for others.

"[The Churchill River is] going to die," she told CBC News. "No life anymore. Money, and all kind of houses, all kind of money … [But] the river's going to die. Finished."

Penashue's son happens to be newly elected Conservative MP Peter Penashue, a longtime Innu leader and one of the main negotiators of the New Dawn agreement.

He said that while there are diverging opinions, the deal is in the long-term interests of the Innu communities.

"We have to respect her views," Penashue said of his mother. "And she has to respect other people's views as well. And on [Thursday], we have to accept the people that speak louder."

Much at stake: leader

Joseph Rich, the grand chief of the Innu Nation, said quite a bit is at stake in the vote.

"Our people, Innu, will make the most important decision in the history of our people," he said.

While Muskrat Falls is attracting much of the attention, New Dawn delivers millions of dollars in compensation for Churchill Falls and incorporates a full land-claim settlement that took many years to complete.

"Together they represent a package that the likes of which have never been seen in Canada before and likely never will be again," Rich said.

Labrador Innu leaders attended a ceremony in St. John's last November to herald the Lower Churchill deal but emphasized their support was conditional on the agreement being ratified.

The Newfoundland and Labrador government and its Crown energy corporation, Nalcor, are developing Muskrat Falls with Halifax-based Emera Inc. The Nova Scotia government also supports the proposal, which would see a share of energy transmitted by sub-sea cables to Nova Scotia for the domestic market, with Emera selling surplus energy to clients in other jurisdictions.