ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - The Innu Nation and the province of Newfoundland and Labrador have signed a detailed legal agreement that brings the province a giant step closer to developing the proposed Lower Churchill hydroelectric project.
"All of the issues regarding the province of Newfoundland have been resolved," Peter Penashue, the Innu Nation's deputy grand chief, said Wednesday.
"(Newfoundland) has resolved a major hurdle in their quest for starting the Lower Churchill project ... It's a major accomplishment and a milestone."
There was no formal announcement of the deal Wednesday. Instead, the news leaked out after Penashue hailed the signing of the agreement on Twitter.
The historic 600-page agreement in principle, signed late Tuesday in St. John's, gives legal weight to the pivotal 2008 New Dawn Agreement, he said in an interview.
That agreement offered the Innu hunting rights within 34,000 square kilometres of land, plus $2 million annually in compensation for flooding caused by construction of the Churchill Falls hydroelectric dam 40 years ago.
It also marked the culmination of 18 years of negotiations regarding Innu land claims and established economic areas assuring Innu participation in resource projects.
But the New Dawn deal was little more than a memorandum of understanding, offering only a set of principles upon which the province and the Innu agreed.
When it was signed in September 2008, the Innu and the province predicted the final deal would be ratified in early 2009. But the talks bogged down.
Last November, Penashue complained that the process had been beset by delays, even though Premier Danny Williams had said a deal was imminent only days earlier.
In the end, it took 17 months of negotiations to translate the 15-page agreement into a formal, legally binding document.
"We spent three hours signing six volumes," Penashue said Wednesday. "That was a lot of initialling for an agreement that dealt with Upper Churchill redress, Lower Churchill (impacts and benefits) and the land claims agreement."
Kathy Dunderdale, Newfoundland's natural resources minister, said the signing of the hefty file marked a turning point for the province.
"The devil is in the details," she said. "As far as the province and the Innu are concerned, we have made our final agreement."
However, the Innu will not give their consent for development of the Lower Churchill project until Ottawa has signed off and the Innu people have ratified the final deal, at which point it will be released publicly.
It's up to Ottawa to give the Innu legal title to a 13,000-square-kilometre parcel of land that is crucial to the Lower Churchill project going ahead.
Penashue said he hopes that process can be wrapped up quickly, but added that it won't happen unless Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl makes the file a priority.
However, Penashue has said previously that it could take up to four years before the agreement winds its way through federal channels.
Ottawa has to make decisions regarding compensation for bestowing aboriginal title on the Innu, benefits related to the creation of Mealy Mountains National Park, fishing rights and the military presence in Labrador.
The final agreement will also include a royalty regime and funding to support the Innu Nation's involvement in construction of the Lower Churchill project.