More than 100 kilometres from the mouth of the Romaine River, far from the public eye, an estimated 1,500 tractor-trailer loads of logs, cut and stacked, have sat decaying for the past three years — ever since the shutdown of a sawmill co-owned by the Natashquan Innu and forestry giant Rémabec.

Local residents have asked Hydro-Québec to allow them to use the wood for heating, but the head of the regional county municipality (MRC) of Minganie, Luc Noël, says the utility has turned down those requests.

“They tell us it’s too complicated,” Noël said. “Will it just be left to rot there or used for something else? We don’t know.”

The hydro-electric scheme under development at La Romaine is the largest construction project in Canada. Four reservoirs are being created with the diversion of the river, flooding vast tracts of pristine forest.

The second and largest of those reservoirs, called Romaine 2, will flood 85.8 square kilometres of land.

Hardwoods burnt – or submerged

Only softwood — conifers such as fir, spruce and larches — have been cut down in the area to be flooded.

Hardwoods, such as birch and aspen, are being left on the land because, without a sawmill that processes hardwood on the North Shore, there is no regional market for those trees.

When the reservoir is flooded, the hardwoods will be submerged and left to die.

In places where Hydro-Québec is compelled to clear-cut, such as under transmission lines, deciduous trees are burnt down on the spot.

Residents of the MRC of Minganie, many of whom heat their homes with hardwood, see that as a dreadful waste — even more so, because they’re required to buy a permit to cut down trees for firewood.

“Hydro could easily put that wood on the side of the road so that we could use it for firewood,” said Minganie resident Marc Fafard.

Boreal wood ‘a little like cognac’

Hydro-Québec is obliged by law to cut down marketable wood before it floods reservoirs. Even that far north, the boreal forest produces fine wood, one forestry expert said.

“It’s a little like cognac,” said Luc Bouthillier, a professor in the forestry department at the Université Laval.

“These are trees that grow very, very slowly. That gives them physical properties that can be made into high-end products.”

The softwood cut down by Hydro-Québec was to be processed at the shuttered Rivière-Saint-Jean sawmill, 50 kilometres from Havre-Saint-Pierre.

Sweetheart deal for PFI

With the start of construction at La Romaine, the sawmill was reopened by a consortium made up of the Natashquan Innu, whose traditional territory La Romaine is being built on, and the forestry giant Rémabec.

That private consortium, Produits forestiers innus (PFI), made arrangements with Hydro-Québec to cut down all the marketable softwood at Romaine 2.

The utility paid PFI more than $34 million to log the area.

At between $116 and $128 per square metre, depending on the density of the forest, PFI earned close to double the average cost of logging in Quebec, according to three different forestry experts that Radio-Canada spoke to: $65 per square metre.

Although the estimated cost to cut down the trees in the region would, under any circumstances, be higher than average, given how remote and difficult the terrain is, Hydro-Québec still gave PFI a sweetheart deal.

Hydro-Québec then sold the logs to PFI’s sawmill at Rivière-Saint-Jean, again at a cut rate: $10 per cubic metre, delivered.

That’s a fraction of the going rate of $50 to $70 a cubic metre, experts say. However, the utility said it wanted to permit the enterprise to invest in upgrades to the old sawmill.

Sawmill saga

Despite the advantageous conditions given to PFI by the public utility, the Innu said they were making no profit from the enterprise. Three years ago, their partnership with Rémabec fell apart, and the sawmill shut down abruptly.

The CEO of Groupe Rémabec, Réjean Paré, acknowledges that the sawmill was operating at a loss, despite the low cost of Hydro-Québec’s softwood.

“Even though we weren’t paying a lot for the wood, given the capacity of the sawmill and the fact that we had to train everyone, the sawmill ran a huge deficit,” said Paré.

The sawmill’s deficit even soaked up some of the profits from PFI’s $34-million logging contract with Hydro-Québec.

Rémabec had paid its subsidiary, Rebec, a set price of $28 million to do the logging. The remaining $6 million, set aside for the Innu, included $3.6 million to train Innu workers and $1.7 million for administration, profits and risks, based on a commitment to hire an average of 25 Innu loggers.

Because PFI failed to meet that hiring requirement, Hydro-Québec retained some of the money set aside for training. The rest disappeared into the sawmill’s bankruptcy.

Ultimately, the only money made by the Natashquan Innu was the wages paid to Innu loggers. However, Rémabec was given access to a pristine softwood forest because of its association with the First Nations community.

What’s to become of wood?

Since the dissolution of PFI, the sawmill has sat empty. Rémabec has taken away the machinery.

The wood sits piled up, decaying.

Hydro-Québec could sell it to another sawmill, 200 kilometres west of the Rivière-Saint-Jean, at Port-Cartier, but that sawmill also belongs to Rémabec.

That would be upsetting to the Natashquan Innu.

La Romaine is being built on their traditional territory, Nitassinan — “our land,” in the Innu language. The logging contract is part of the compensation package negotiated with Hydro-Québec for the loss of their flooded territory.
There is nothing in it for the Innu to see the logs sold to another Rémabec sawmill.