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Dammed if you do...

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Issue: 4 Section: Environment Geography: North, Quebec Topics: water, Indigenous

July 26, 2003

Dammed if you do...

HydroQuebec plans diversion of multiple rivers near James Bay

by Carole Ferrari


As part of continuing hydroelectric development on James Bay, HydroQuebec has begun the paper work, table talk, and preparatory construction to dam and divert the Rupert River. During a consultation meeting in the Cree community of Chisibi on June 11th, community members spoke out against a plan and process that they feel fails to respect the environment and traditional knowledge of the community.

The Rupert is one of the major rivers that run into the east side of the James Bay. It flows by the Cree communities of Nemiska and Waskaganish, 730 km across the breadth of northern Quebec into the southern end of the Bay.

The James Bay Project continues as part of HydroQuebec's Strategic Plan for 2002-2006, "...to develop competitive hydroelectric projects, [which] reflect both the economic benefits of hydroelectric projects and the environmental advantages of hydropower." The project, officially called the "Eastmain-1-A Powerhouse and Rupert Diversion," involves diverting the waters from the Rupert into the Eastmain River which has already been dammed, building another powerhouse on the Eastmain 1 reservoir, and making modifications to the control structure on the Opinaca reservoir to increase power generating capacity at the site. The project also entails the diversion of two other rivers, the Lemare and the Nemiscau. This will require four more dams, another spillway, approximately fifty dykes, two diversion bays with a total surface area of about square 400 kilometres, control structures between the forebay and tailbay of the Rupert, and a network of approximately 12,000 metres of canals to direct the water's flow. 230 square kilometres of land will be flooded. In effect, the Eastmain-1-A Powerhouse and Rupert Diversion will change the Rupert's direction. Instead of flowing west into James Bay, the Rupert will be redirected north into reservoirs on the La Grande River, 363 kilometres off course.

The project comes in the wake of HydroQuebec's other damming projects in the region. The La Grande Phase 1 flooded 11,500 square kilometres of traditional Cree territory. It created the world's largest underground powerhouse, a spillway on the La Grande River three times the height of Niagara Falls, and five mega-reservoirs. Phase 2, by which the Eastmain, Laforge and Caniapiscau Rivers were diverted into the La Grande, will soon be completed after being suspended due to fierce protests from the Cree and environmentalists.

The project has recently concluded its public consultations for the directives of the environmental impact assessment. The directives instruct the project`s proponents (HydroQuebec and its subsidiary, La Societe d`energie de la Baie James), on how to conduct its impact assessment. The public had a consultation period of sixty days to comment on the directives. Official consultation meetings were held in Montreal and the Cree communities of Mistissini, Waskaganish, Nemeska and Chisasibi. These communities are either directly affected by the project and/or have been impacted by previous HydroQuebec projects.

The community of Chisasibi has twenty-five years experience with HydroQuebec. Relocated in 1980 from Fort George Island to make way for the first set of dams, Chisasibi has been fundamentally impacted by the damming projects.

Chisasibi community members spoke out against the current project at their consultation meeting, held on June 11th in Chisasibi. They objected to the 6 month timeline of study period for the assessment, calling it too short. They argued that the native lifestyle and mindset are not the same as that of mainstream North American society, and that full understanding of impacts will take more time. "We will miss a lot of things and in the future we will realize the negative impacts ... this happens all the time". It was felt that more time is needed to share the process with the elders, and to translate proceedings into the two dialects of Cree spoken in the region. "'Biodiversity'; how do you explain that in Cree? We need time to fully participate in the process."

The beginning of another project so soon after the completion of the previous project also raised concerns, "There are physical impacts, but also mental and spiritual...we haven't finished grieving yet [from the previous project]. And now another process - a civil process, but with very uncivilized impacts - the destruction of a river."

Community members also raised the issue of changes in water purity. Previous damming projects increased mercury levels in the waters of the La Grande and contaminated fish, a staple of the Cree diet. "We want good water, all the time, for everything that drinks the water." Concerns for winter travel on the river because of potential ice level changes, for the loss of medicinal plants, spawning grounds and the effects on migrating goose were also expressed.

The Crees wondered how traditional knowledge, a mandatory element of the impact assessment, could be attained with the process proposed by HydroQuebec. Some questioned how well HydroQuebec can honour and respect traditional knowledge without understanding what it is. "How can I expect to fully assess the impact on a culture without understanding it, especially if I'm expecting to profit?" "We are asked, `What do you know? Give me your knowledge,' that must be respected... but the white man has the last say and usually what he says, goes."

The community appealed to panel members responsible for formulating the directives to take a personal approach to their task and conduct their work with honour. "There are different kinds of listening: with a pen, ears, mind, heart. It's not just words in speaking, it's spirit too. Sharing is a sacred process we don't understand fully. Sit by the river, experience it - please do that. It's not the same as flying over it. I'm sure it's not written in your mandate, but please do it ... Water is sacred. Because it is sacred we cannot take what we do lightly. Don't let this process be a rubber stamping process. Please do this in honour."

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