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close this bookCERES No. 135 (FAO Ceres, 1992, 50 p.)
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View the documentJames Bay: is this deluge necessary?
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View the documentIn brief

James Bay: is this deluge necessary?

Opponents of Quebec's James Bay hydroelectric project are fond of a cartoon, showing Noah leaning out of his ark, shouting to the animals filing on board, two-by-two (a sign in the background reads "James Bay"): "OK everybody, forget it! I'm calling the whole thing off! With God, we had a chance, but this time...!"

The cartoon's message probably sums up the issues more effectively than the cries of environmental activists campaigning against the project in the United States, who describe it as "the Amazon of the North" and refer to the film Dances with Wolves when talking about its potential impact on the native peoples of northwestern Quebec, the Cree Indians and the Inuit. Their emotive appeals for international support have alerted the world, not to mention a previously unconcerned Canadian public, to what is undoubtedly an environmental issue of almost biblical proportions.

The history of the James Bay hydroelectric project extends back to 1964, when the electric utility Hydro-Quebec began studying ways of developing the La Grande River. In 1971, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa launched "the project of the century", a plan to develop the river systems draining into James Bay. The scope of the development was breathtaking, incorporating longterm plans to build 215 dams and dikes, 23 power stations and involving the diversion of 19 rivers, including the La Grande, the Eastmain, the Rupert, Broadback and St Lawrence and the Great Whale.

This massive development, if allowed to proceed, would eventually harness the energy of the rivers flowing through 350 000 square kilometers of northwestern Quebec, an area bigger than Germany.

The first stage, the La Grande, also known as James Bay One, was completed in 1985 (for Phase One) and La Grande Phase Two, which includes additional powerhouses, is due for completion in 1996. The total area flooded is 15 000 square kilometers and the combined cost of the La Grande project is about Can $23 billion to date (1 Can $= 0.85 US$). The Can $12.7 billion second stage, Great Whale, or James Bay Two, is now the subject of protest and debate. The total area to be flooded would be more than 3 000 square kilometres. The third stage is known as the NBR project, the initials representing three rivers, the Nottaway, Broadback and Rupert. A total of 5 500 kilometres of transmission lines would carry the power to markets in southern Quebec. The power would then be transmitted to customers in the United States. In 1989, its cost was estimated at Can $16. billion.

Cree Indian communities in the area affected by the development first heard of it through newspaper reports. They had not been consulted previously and their battle to stop the project going ahead was lost in 1973 when a Quebec appeals court ruled that the development had proceeded too far to stop and the needs of millions of the province's residents outweighed the concerns of "a few thousand natives".

In 1975, the Grand Council of the Cree agreed to let the project proceed and, together with the Northern Quebec Inuit Association, signed the landmark James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, in return for some recognition of their territorial rights to a total of 410 000 square miles of land and the instigation of an environmental review process. Cree communities received Can $225 million. The agreement covered Cree and Inuit self-government, administration of justice, health and social services, environment and future development, as well as hunting, fishing and trapping rights and income security for those participating in traditional activities.

A most extraordinary aspect of this issue is that, despite all the rhetoric, no one is able to answer two fundamental questions: what exactly will be the impact of the project on the environment and native peoples, and is the project really essential to the future energy requirements and the economy of the province?

A complex web of review processes has, as yet, not come up with a comprehensive picture of the potential environmental and social impact of the project and the answer to whether or not Quebec needs a hydroelectric development of this size lies in documents kept with jealous care. However, news that the project will put Quebec at least Can$60 billion in debt has raised considerable public concern and increased interest in the project.

David Cliche, president of the Great Whale Forum in Quebec, a coalition trying to encourage public debate and discussion of the issue, said that until one year ago there had been no public debate, involvement or review of the project. "In fact, there has been no opposition as such in Canada or Quebec".

"We have not had answers so far to simple questions, such as do we really need the electricity", Cliche told Ceres. "We are still struggling to get information out of the government and Hydro-Quebec which would provide the answers.

Environmental damage

Critics have argued that the key role held by the James Bay project in Quebec's strategy for economic growth has meant that environmental concerns have not been allowed to impede its progress. While Hydro-Quebec has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on environmental impact studies and remedial measures and the Quebec government introduced most of its environmental laws after the James Bay project was started, critics maintain that the position of both the government and the utility that the project is essential and must proceed has influenced the quality of environmental reviews.

Cree Indians continue to maintain a traditional, semi-nomadic life-style in northern Quebec, based on hunting, fishing and trapping. They say the project will destroy their ability to live traditionally because it will have a catastrophic impact on their fishing and hunting grounds.

Phase One of the project, the La Grande, flooded 11 500 kilometres; of caribou calving grounds, fish-spawning areas, migratory bird habitats and destroyed food supplies for marine mammals. Environmental damage was especially severe along the edges of water bodies, the richest habitats for plants and wildlife. What were once wild rivers have been reduced to creeks.

Crees and environmentalists fear that the fragile and complex environment along the shores of James Bay and Hudson Bay will be destroyed by changes in water salinity, due to changes in the flow off rivers feeding into both bays.

Since Phase One was built without any environmental assessment, perhaps the most serious outcome was the release of mercury into waterways. The mercury normally lay dormant in rocks, however a bacteria associated with the decomposing vegetation in new reservoirs transforms it into methyl mercury, which then enters the food chain. Within months of the completion of Phase One, levels of mercury in fish caught in the La Grande downstream from dams, had climbed to six times their normal levels. A 1984 survey of Crees living in Chisasibi, at the river's mouth on James Bay, found that 64 per cent had unsafe levels of mercury in their bodies. Crees say it could take 50 years before mercury levels return to normal.

A committee appointed by Hydro-Quebec in 1987 and given a Can$18.5 million budget to research the problem has not yet found a solution, although it has suggested that Crees stop eating fish....a staple of their diet.

Environmentalists have also targeted Hydro-Quebec contracts to export power to New England and New York, arguing that the Quebec environment and the maintenance of native peoples' traditional lifestyles should come before the power needs of the United States and questioning just how much of the 28 000 megawatts of power that would be generated by a completed James Bay hydroelectric project is needed by Quebec itself.

A Canadian Federal Court decision in September 1991 put a stop to all work on the Great Whale project and ordered the federal government to launch a new environmental review. The decision was a major victory for the Cree and Inuit, who had instigated the court action seeking to force a comprehensive and binding federal review of the project under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, a complex land claims settlement established in 1975. The study is expected to delay the project for at least three and up to five years.

The Quebec government has appealed the court decision and remains adamant that the project is essential to the needs of Quebec and will proceed. The province's Deputy Premier, Lise Bacon, threatened in October 1991 that if James Bay was scrapped, Quebec would have no choice but to build nuclear power-generating plants.

As pointed out by Gerald Aubry, of Canada's Federal Environmental Assessment Review Office, there has been no shortage of environmental review processes being applied to the Great Whale project. Following the Federal Court decision, there are now five reviews being conducted by seven committees, with members representing the federal and provincial governments, the Crees and the Inuit.

Both governments announced in October 1991 that efforts were being made to coordinate and "harmonize" at least some of the reviews. The federal and provincial environment ministers said in a joint press release that there was a "firm intention to undertake a credible process of environmental assessment that will enable all interested parties to be heard on all aspects of the hydroelectric project".

Some years ago, Hydro-Quebec released a glossy brochure entitled: "La Grande Riviere: A Development in Accord with its Environment". At the time few apart from the Cree and Inuit doubted the message, but it now seems clear that all parties have recognized that work on the next stage of the project should not, in fact cannot, proceed before a thorough environmental review determines whether or not it should go ahead at all.

Helen Gillman