Canada

The power and the glory

David Thomas November 5 1979
Canada

The power and the glory

David Thomas November 5 1979

The power and the glory

David Thomas

In Quebec, hydroelectricity is more than cheap, clean energy. It is the Vulcan of the province’s modern nationalist mythology. Just as the Caesars ruled by claiming a mandate from the Roman gods, Quebec’s leaders have, for the past two decades, sought legitimacy for their visions in the divine power of hydroelectricity.

Last weekend, in a pilgrimage that cost Quebeckers $750,000, hundreds of politicians, U.S. bankers, journalists and foreign dignitaries, including seven from China, came to pay homage at Quebec’s newest shrine: the dam and powerhouse at LG-2, the Parthenon of the massive James Bay hydroelectric project.

But there were jealousies among the mortals claiming this god as their own. The two principal protagonists—former Liberal premier Robert Bourassa, who initiated the $15-billion project in 1971, and Parti Québécois Premier René Lévesque—each invoked James Bay power as vindication of their reigns. Bourassa used Saturday’s inauguration of LG-2 to rehabilitate himself in preparation for an obvious comeback attempt; Lévesque, in turn, used it as proof that a sovereign Quebec could get by without Alberta oil.

Lévesque flew to LG-2 Friday and standing before the majestic dam deftly seized Bourassa’s “project of the century” as his own great scheme, using it as a clever argument that Quebeckers need not fear that independence would leave them out in the cold. Encouraging the spreading faith that Quebeckers can become the Arabs of electricity, the premier said that once the entire James Bay territory has been dammed daily power output will equal the energy of 600,000 barrels of oil—more than the province’s current petroleum consumption. “Nowhere,” said the premier, “is our ability to take charge of our destiny more obvious than it is here.”

But the recognition of James Bay’s physical, economic and political splendor was clearly painful for Lévesque. Bourassa’s project, said the premier, was a bad idea gone good and his defeated Liberal predecessor should be credited only with “unconscious wisdom.” The unforeseen energy pinch had saved the project, Lévesque insisted.

Bourassa himself materialized in the early hours of Saturday, joined a group of dining journalists and unabashedly revelled in his return from the wilderness. Confident that the shine has returned to his political star, the 46-yearold economist openly mused about sce-

narios that could create the “political vacuum” he could fill. Quebeckers, he said, have not been duped by Lévesque’s attempt to appropriate James Bay for the cause of independence and that the water rushing through LG-2’s turbines would cleanse the memory of James Bay development of all by Bourassa’s prescience.

Bourassa said two more political inversions in the political skies over Quebec would complete his rehabilitation: the gradual alienation of union leaders from the PQ government and the realization by Quebec anglophones that Bourassa’s 1974 Bill 22 language legislation wasn’t so bad after all. But Bourassa’s mind also frolics with a volatile scheme to create his longed-for power vacuum: he is demanding a public inquiry into the 1970 October Crisis—an inquiry

Lévesque had promised until he recently received the results of a private investigation which outlined how the political events were intertwined with the terrorist kidnappings and murder of Bourassa’s labor minister, Pierre Laporte. Bourassa wants the facts dredged up because, inevitably, they would include the nearly forgotten reports of nascent conspiracy to depose the Bourassa administration and replace it with a provisional government. Among the reported intriguers: René Lévesque, then a simple party leader without elected office, and Claude Ryan, publisher of Le Devoir at the time and now, as Quebec Liberal leader, Bourassa’s biggest obstacle to a return to power.

Just four hours before Lévesque was to turn the switch of No. 9 turbine, Bourassa appeared unannounced at the press centre to steal the show with his new vision of hydroelectric development: the immediate damming of Quebec’s unharnessed rivers and the sale of the power to the United States under long-term contracts. With the proceeds, Quebec could create its own heritage fund similar to Alberta’s.

At 3.33 p.m., with Bourassa watching from the sidelines, Lévesque marched over to the control panel of the subterranean powerhouse and turned a small, black switch. Nothing happened until, 54 seconds later, the beige flooring over the generator vibrated as the rotor below accelerated to top speed, sending the first power from James Bay into the homes of Montreal — and with it the beginnings of Quebec’s next, still mysterious, act of faith in the union of hydroelectric and political power, O