Cree Nation Divided Over James Bay Mega-Project
by Bill Weinberg, Indian Country Today
Hydro-Quebec, the provincial utility which is a major energy exporter to the Northeast US, has commenced construction on a new mega-project on Cree lands of the far north James Bay region. The project, which would divert the waters of the Rupert River, has divided the Cree nation. The last chief of the Cree Grand Council, Ted Moses, signed on to the project and aggressively pushed it, but a new and more critical administration has since taken office in Cree country. The chiefs of the three communities to be directly affected by the water diversion are in active opposition.
“People aren’t aware of how it will impact us and our way of life,” says Robert Weistche, chief of Waskaganish, one of the three dissenting communities. “We would lose the majority of the river, because we live at the mouth, at the estuary. In light of global warming, one year there might not be any water at all.”
The project consists of a series of dams, tunnels and canals on the Rupert River, diverting 70% of the flow a hundred miles north into the system of hydro-dams already built in the Eastmain River watershed. The Rupert River diversion is slated to add 888 megawatts of power, flooding 600 square kilometers of traditional Cree lands. New roads, power lines, temporary cities, and two new power stations are to be built in the remote region of boreal forest. The deal which approved the project also includes rights to timber and mineral exploitation in the region.
Canada’s federal authorities approved the project in December after completion of an impact statement by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. But two federal commissioners disagreed with the assessment’s methodology for evaluating methyl mercury contamination in the river. A Sierra Club study also maintains that the impact statement underestimates the amount of mercury that will be released by the new project.
“We depend a lot on the fish, and we’re very concerned about the methyl mercury,” says Chief Weistche.
Mercury contamination was a disastrous result of the so-called “James Bay I” mega-project, which saw construction of a series of dams on La Grande and Eastmain rivers in the 1970s, flooding 11,000 square kilometers. Most of the Eastmain River was then diverted into La Grande’s watershed. James Bay I is already considered the world’s largest hydroelectric complex. But Hydro-Quebec has eventual plans to dam every river flowing into James Bay, a southern extension of Hudson Bay.
In addition to flooding Cree hunting grounds, the James Bay I project poisoned Cree waters, with the increased pressure of the floodplains leaching mercury from the soil. The Cree were barred from consuming fish from the rivers, further eroding their self-sufficiency.
Waskaganish and fellow dissident community Nemska are both along the Rupert River. The third dissenting community is Chisasibi, along La Grande River, downstream of the dams. Many residents there say James Bay I has changed local climate conditions. Chisasibi’s Chief Abraham Rupert, reached by telephone at his office, says: “This is March. All the rivers should be frozen. But I look out my window now they aren’t. The dams increase velocity and turbulence, and this prevents freezing. In the cold months of the year, January and February, we’re lucky if it freezes over for a few weeks now. With this new diversion, the river probably won’t freeze at all.”
Rupert says the failure of the rivers to freeze means more moisture in air during the harsh winters, affecting community health.
But Rupert says the impacts ripple far beyond the river banks. “The dams have had a great impact on the James Bay coast,” he says. “In the fall we used to have thousands of thousands of Canadian geese coming through. The eel grass they fed off grew in abundance along the coast. Now there’s none at all. It took around 20 years for that to happen after the La Grande project.”
Rupert says the Canadian and brant geese have disappeared with the eel grass, and points out that his community has traditionally relied on them for food. Rupert attributes the eel grass decline to increased sediment, caused in turn by the hydro dams causing fluctuating water levels.
Chief Weistche acknowledges that the Cree-Quebec agreement permitting the Rupert River project “bars chiefs speaking against the signed deal. But our communities voted against it, and we have a responsibility to represent our people.”
In early 2002, the Cree Grand Council held a community-by-community referendum approving the project. Of the nine Cree communities, only Chisasibi voted “no.” But the impact study had not then been completed, and critics say the Cree had voted without knowing the project’s full impact.
Under the deal, the Cree will receive $70 million per year for the next 40 years, plus a share in logging and mineral rights for the region.
The agreement—signed February 7, 2002 in Waskaganish, and dubbed Paix des Braves (Peace of the Brave)—stipulates that the Rupert diversion will not be allowed without the full support of local communities. Waskagnish, Chisasibi and Nemaska held their own vote in November 2006, which defeated the project by some 80 percent.
Says Chief Weistche: “This question of acceptability is still up in the air, because three communities are opposed to the project. Yet things are going ahead as planned. The provincial government takes the position that the Cree signed the deal. But people were told, ‘You’re not agreeing to diversion, just to the process, we’ll come back to you after the environmental review.’ That never happened. It was done very swiftly.”
Conceived as an improved successor to the 1975 James Bay Agreement which approved James Bay I after decades of litigation, the 50-year Paix des Braves pact allows for joint jurisdiction between the Quebec government and Cree in the seven municipalities of the James Bay region. Upon its signing, Cree Grand Chief Moses declared: “Quebec becomes a leader in the application of the principles recognized by the United Nations in regards of aboriginal development. Quebec will be able to show that the respect of aboriginals is compatible with her national interest. The federal government should inspire itself with this agreement in its negotiations with Natives across Canada.”
New Grand Chief Matthew Mukash, who took office in 2006, is proposing the development of wind power on Cree land instead of the Rupert diversion, which is slated to actually take place in the summer or fall of 2008.
Weistche supports this proposal. “There are alternatives,” he says. “It’s been estimated we have the potential to generate 100 thousand megawatts from wind power in Cree country.”
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper supports the Rupert River project, and Quebec’s Premier Jean Charest hails the Rupert diversion as the “biggest project of the decade.” However, Quebec, like the Cree Grand Council, has changed government since the Paix des Braves agreement. The pact was negotiated by Premier Bernard Landry of the separatist Parti Québécois.
In this year’s March 27 provincial elections, the PQ came in third place after Charest’s Liberals and the upstart conservative populist Action Democratique. All three parties support the Rupert River project, and all three predicate Quebec’s economic future on continued exports of James Bay hydro-power. But their divergent views on Quebec’s political future have implications for Cree country.
In 1995, the then-ruling PQ held a provincial referendum on secession from Canada, which was narrowly defeated. Just before the 1995 referendum, the Cree held a plebiscite of their own—and overwhelmingly voted to stick with Canada.
It is Canadian federal courts which have upheld the right of the Cree to be consulted in provincial development plans for their land—starting with the key ruling over James Bay I in 1973. Even though it was overturned on appeal, the ruling for the Cree’s aboriginal title that forced Quebec to the table and resulted in the James Bay Agreement. Quebec secession from Ottawa would certainly mean Cree secession from Quebec, and carries the potential for a showdown over the James Bay region.
Whether a separatist Quebec would have the right to take Cree country with it is open to question. The name for the Rupert River agreement was inspired by the 1701 Great Peace of Montreal, also known as “La Paix des Braves,” which ended a century of war between the French-allied Algonquins and the English-allied Iroquois. But the Cree, isolated in the far north, were not involved in this struggle, or a part of Quebec. The James Bay region was then known as Rupert’s Land, established in 1670 as a holding of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Its status as a part of Canada was not settled until Britain passed the Rupert’s Land Act in 1868, the year after Canadian independence. The region was not formally incorporated into Quebec until 1912.
Asked about their stance in the event that the PQ take power again and hold a new referendum, Chief Weistche and Chief Rupert both recall the experience of 1995. “We’d stick with Canada,” Rupert says.
Rupert warns that the in 2001, the Quebec National Assembly established a Municipality of Baie-James (MBJ) in 2001, for white settlers in the region. “The MBJ is expanding on to category 2 and category 3 lands,” Rupert charges. Category 2 lands are those put aside for the use of the Cree village centers, which are considered category 1. Category 3 are the wide expanses of public land between the communities, where the Cree have also traditionally trapped, fished and hunted. Rupert sees the MBJ as a strategy to set a precedent for eroding Cree land title, and notes that the Rupert River project will bring a flood of new settlers into the region.
In Nunavut, the self-governing Inuit homeland carved out of the Northwest Territories in 1999, leaders are also concerned that the Rupert River project to their south will impact their arctic domain, and say they should have been consulted. Nunavut legislator Peter Kattuk says traditional Inuit knowledge was not given enough weight in the federal study approving the Rupert River project. He told the CBC earlier this year that local Inuit have observed changes in ice conditions in Hudson Bay since the James Bay I project was built, which he attributes to disruption in the balance of fresh and salt water inflows.
Chief Rupert emphasizes that he supports development. “We have the technology and know-how to produce energy through wind power. But the cost of this river project is too much for Cree people to bear at this time.”
“They say this power from the north is clean and cheap,” says Chief Weistche. “Well, its not clean because it is impacting the Cree. When you start losing the rivers that we’ve been given the responsibility to take care of for future generations, its not right.
A shorter version of this story appeared in the April 24 issue of Indian Country Today http://www.indiancountry.com/content.cfm?id=1096414898
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