CANADA

COLLIDING CULTURES

THE CLAIMS OF QUEBEC NATIVES CLASH WITH THE PROVINCE’S NEED TO DEVELOP ITS HYDRO POTENTIAL

BARRY CAME August 12 1991
CANADA

COLLIDING CULTURES

THE CLAIMS OF QUEBEC NATIVES CLASH WITH THE PROVINCE’S NEED TO DEVELOP ITS HYDRO POTENTIAL

BARRY CAME August 12 1991

COLLIDING CULTURES

CANADA

THE CLAIMS OF QUEBEC NATIVES CLASH WITH THE PROVINCE’S NEED TO DEVELOP ITS HYDRO POTENTIAL

In Cree legend, the chute of wild white water is called Hawk’s Breastbone. It boils down through a gorge on the Great Whale River, not far from the point where the stream tumbles out of the highlands of northern Quebec into Hudson Bay. The name derives from a Cree myth involving a foolhardy hawk that tried to sing longer and louder than the wise old river. The bird soon tired and fell exhausted into the gorge, where its breastbone can still be glimpsed as a hump of granite jutting out of the rushing waters. According to the local inhabitants, the story has been passed down by tribal elders for thousands of years. “It is one small illustration

of the bonds that tie us to this land,” said Matthew Mukash, a community liaison officer for the Grand Council for the Crees of Quebec in nearby Whapmagoostui. “And nobody should have the right to take that from us, not even those damned engineers in their yellow hard hats.” The engineers are employed by Hydro Quebec, and while the legends would likely survive the utility company’s plans for Great Whale River, the waters surrounding Hawk’s Breastbone would not. If the provincially owned utility completes its mammoth plan to harness the river’s power, the mighty rapids will disappear.

The plan is part of a $12.7-billion scheme to dam three rivers and flood an area of subarctic wilderness twothirds the size of Prince Edward Island by 1998—and to generate 3,168 megawatts of hydroelectricity, enough to serve a city of 700,000 people. It would cut the flow of the Great Whale by 85 per cent, reducing flow at the Hawk’s Breastbone to a trickle. The utility plans to take similar action affecting thousands of other sites around the region, all of which have special significance to the 10,500 Cree and 7,000 Inuit whose ancestors have lived, hunted and fished there for 5,000 years. By altering the symbolic sites, claimed Mukash, “Not only are they planning to destroy our hunting grounds and poison our fish, but they are also robbing us of the intangibles that have given vitality to our culture

and allowed us to survive as a people.” The view from southern Quebec is sharply different. Premier Robert Bourassa, for one, is a passionate supporter of the development, which he views as critical to Quebec’s economic growth. For their part, utility officials regard the proposed Great Whale project as a logical extension of the even larger 14,000-megawatt development on the La Grande River, 200 km to the south. Together, the projects form the

first two stages of a gigantic three-step plan to capture the energy of nearly all of the eight major Quebec rivers that flow into Hudson or James Bay. Said utility spokesman Léon-Marie Hachez, as he leaned against the thrumming head of one of the 16 working dynamos in the main generating station on the La Grande: “We have provided a source of power that is sustainable, renewable and far less damaging to the environment than any of the alternatives available today.” He added: “I think future generations of Quebecers are going to thank us for the job that has already been done and for the work that remains to be done.” Among the region’s Cree and Inuit residents, however, the value of the work already done is a subject of fierce controversy. Many natives say that they have received inadequate compensation for the disruption of their traditional lifestyle. And both groups of natives are now challenging the utility’s ex-

pansion plans in forums ranging from a provincial environmental-assessment panel to the United Nations Centre for Human Rights. The UN agency issued a damning verdict last week on the effects of the first stage of Quebec’s hydro development. As a result of the La Grande project, the agency said, “Crees and Inuit have reported dietary deficiencies, poor health, increased alcohol and drug abuse and a growing problem of family violence.”

In fact, both Hydro Quebec and the Quebec government concede that their plans for James Bay will cause problems—particularly for the region’s Cree and Inuit residents. “Sure there are negative impacts,” acknowledged provincial Native Affairs Minister Christos Sirros in response to last week’s UN report. “Nobody is going to deny that.” But representatives of the province and its utility company maintain that they have made strenuous efforts to lessen the damage, both to the environment and to the natives. They note that the province has set aside 29,000 square miles of unflooded land—an area nearly the size of England—for the use of the Cree and Inuit, as well as paying those groups $500

million in cash and employment contracts. Provincial authorities say that they have also instituted scores of programs to offset the ecological effects of development. Said Richard Baxter, an environmental officer at a 1,368megawatt generating station being built 37 km upstream from the mouth of the La Grande River: “Millions have been spent on planting trees, restoring wildlife habitat, building dikes and weirs and on a host of other programs designed to mitigate some of the worst effects.”

But few of northwestern Quebec’s natives say that they are reassured by these efforts. “We don't want this project—period,” declared Sappa Fleming, mayor of Kuujjuarapik, an Inuit community of 500 in a collection of almost-identical two-storey wooden houses on the windswept shores of Hudson Bay at the mouth of the Great Whale River. The 500 Cree at Whapmagoostui, a few hundred metres east on the other side of rolling sand dunes, are even more adamant. In June, an angry crowd of Whapmagoostui Cree blockaded a party of Hydro Quebec officials in the airport at Kuujjuarapik, the only access to either town. The officials, who had arrived to testify at Inuitsponsored hearings into the project’s environmental impact, left when neither group of local natives could guarantee their safety. “It was going to be a sham,” said Robbie Dick, chief of the Whapamagoostui band, of the proposed hearing.

“We’re more than ready to participate in a real assessment of this whole project because we think we can prove that the damage it will cause far outweighs the benefits. But we are not going to take part in the kind of staged farce that the Quebec government wants.”

Dick’s skepticism about the province’s environmental assessment of Hydro Quebec’s plans is widely shared among the Cree and Inuit. Fuelling their doubts is the Quebec government’s determination to split the environmental review into two stages: one covering construction of three planned generating stations, four reservoirs and 154 dikes, and the other covering construction of 575 km of access road and three airports. Officials of the utility and government have insisted upon dealing with the two assessments separately in order to secure approvals to begin work on the airports and access roads as early as the fall, a deadline that they say is vital to completing the entire project on time.

There are compelling economic reasons for the haste. For one thing, Hydro Quebec asserts that energy demand in the province is increasing at an average rate of two per cent a year. If the Great Whale project is not on-stream by 2006, it predicts, the province could face an

energy shortage. A more immediate concern lies in the 62,000 jobs expected to be created by construction of the airports and roads alone. The project’s anticipated impact accounts for a large proportion of the economic growth forecast for 1992 in a province that is already hard-pressed by recession.

But those arguments are unconvincing to the people who will be most directly affected by the next phase of the development. The experience of natives living near the first stage of construction has only underscored their doubts. There are 2,700 Cree and 500 Inuit scattered in nine villages around the region. As a result of the development, most now enjoy benefits long available to other Quebecers in the south: electricity, running water, sewers, schools, health centres and roads, as well as a measure of self-government.

Beneath the surface, however, the situation is more complex. Hydro Quebec’s massive refashioning of the La Grande River basin not only left ancestral hunting grounds submerged, it also began a process that released methylmercury from flooded ground, which contaminated many species of fish, the main source of protein in native diets. At the same time, the introduction of southern-style development had an impact that is reflected in myriad smaller ways. For one thing, there is a roadblock at the entrance to Chisasibi, a tidy Cree town of 2,700 on the bank of the La Grande near the river’s mouth. Unofficial Cree police search visitors’ cars for contraband alcohol and drugs. Car rental agencies ask clients staying overnight in the town to leave their vehicles at the police station because of a growing incidence of theft and vandalism. Old men, whiling away the hours on wooden benches inside a covered mall, stare vacantly at the passing crowd. Family violence is increasing, as are suicides. “It is true that our life is in many ways much easier now,” said Violet Pachano, the

elected chief of the Chisasibi band council, “but we have also fallen prey to all of the social diseases of the south. We are no longer in control of our lives.” Added Pachano: “We seem to have lost something that we once thought was very valuable.”

For many residents of a region where life changed little over the millennia until the 1970s, the main problem is the swift pace of modernization that the James Bay development has forced them to adopt. And in Kuujjuarapik, Mayor Fleming, for one, wants to avoid similar difficulties arising from the second stage of hydro development. “We are just not yet ready to handle all of the things that will happen to us if this project goes ahead,” he said. “Maybe there will be a time when we can, but I suspect that will not occur until there are Inuit doctors and nurses and engineers who can

make sure that things are managed the way we want them to be managed.”

In the meantime, the Cree and Inuit appear determined to defend the values that have helped to sustain them in their harsh environment over thousands of years. And central to those standards are places like Hawk’s Breastbone. The Cree have hired archeologists to map culturally important sites likely to be affected by the Great Whale development. So far, they have identified 3,000 locations, each of which plays a role in legends that Cree parents have been telling their children for generations. Cree elders, meanwhile, are collecting the legends as well—and recording them on tape. When complete, the project is likely to yield a record that is rich in both myth and history. It may also provide Quebec’s northern natives with a powerful emotional weapon in the battle to preserve their starkly beautiful land against the province’s need to harness its rich resource potential.

BARRY CAME in Kuujjuarapik