CANADA

Power plays in Quebec

Cabinet rivals battle over James Bay II

DAN BURKE November 26 1990
CANADA

Power plays in Quebec

Cabinet rivals battle over James Bay II

DAN BURKE November 26 1990

Power plays in Quebec

Cabinet rivals battle over James Bay II

It North is the American most ambitious energy undertaking of the decade, or, as Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa says, “of the century.” But increasingly, the Quebec government’s plan to flood an additional area of northern wilderness the size of Lake Erie, in order to generate electricity for export to the United States, is becoming a flash point for rivalries over public policy, private advancement and even national visions. At stake, Hydro Quebec chairman Richard Drouin claimed last week, is $8.4 billion in potential profits from the proposed expansion of Quebec’s existing James Bay hydro development. Bourassa himself has made the project the cen-

trepiece of his

strategy for the province. But the scale of the vast construction job in the remote northern hinterland of Quebec has alarmed natives and environmentalists. And critics of the project have found a ready ally in Pierre Paradis,

Bourassa’s ambitious environment minister.

For Paradis, the issue is simple. Declared the 40-year-old MNA for the southern Quebec riding of Brome/Missisquoi: “Everybody knows that Mr. Bourassa’s pet project is James

Bay lí. But we have to look at the environmental angle.” To that end, Paradis has called for a sweeping joint federal-provincial environmental review of the $50-billion plan. Indeed, he has said that if the proposal to build three new dams and hydroelectric stations on the Great Whale River north of the existing James Bay power facilities by 1998 fails to pass environmental tests, it could be scrapped. Paradis’s stand has placed him at odds with Quebec Energy Minister Lise Bacon—Bourassa’s deputy premier and closest cabinet confidante on the power project.

Bacon has insisted that the development be submitted to a speedier series of reviews while construction proceeds. And she has rejected any federal involvement in the review as an unacceptable intrusion into Quebec’s *> “strategic” affairs. How the à debate between the two min< isters ends is likely to deterar mine not only the future of I vast tracts of Quebec, but y also the personal career pros| pects of both Bacon and Para° dis—who was Bourassa’s closest rival in the premier’s successful 1983 campaign for the leadership of the Quebec Liberal party.

The open feud between the two cabinet colleagues arises at a time when opposition is mounting to the second phase of the project.

On Oct. 25, the Grand Council of the Crees,

representing about 7,000 Indians who live near the site of the proposed dams, joined with several environmental groups seeking a permanent injunction against the project from the Quebec Superior Court. The Cree argue that the flooding and river diversion required to expand the hydroelectric development will destroy up to 90 per cent of the Indian traplines in the area. Declared Rod Pachano, a Cree negotiator from Chaisasibi, Que.: “The ecosystem is extremely fragile there. A project of this nature will devastate it.”

At the same time, a recent ruling by the Ottawa-based National Energy Board could also delay the expansion plans. On Sept. 28, the NEB issued licences allowing Hydro Quebec to export additional James Bay power worth a total of $22.7 billion to the United States over the next 30 years. But, in a condition of those permits, the NEB also required Hydro Quebec to conduct “appropriate environmental reviews” of any new construction that results from the energy sale. Declared Bacon: “Hydroelectricity is a strategic sector of Quebec’s economic future. It is absolutely essential that all elements of this future are controlled by Quebecers.” She added that Quebec will appeal the NEB decision in court.

Despite the magnitude of the overall project, the current debate has centred largely on a planned 600-km access road to the Great Whale site. For his part, Paradis has urged his cabinet colleagues to ratify an agreement that he reached in June with his federal counterpart, Robert de Cotret. Under that accord, both governments would include the road with the rest of the development in a joint environmental review. The agreement sidestepped differences between Quebec and the federal government over which has jurisdiction over the environment—possibly forestalling a bitter constitutional confrontation. But the Quebec cabinet has pointedly failed so far to ratify Paradis’s agreement. Bacon, meanwhile, has insisted that work on the road must begin by January—with or without an environmental review—in order for the project to meet its 1998 target date for completion.

At the same time, political analysts in Quebec say that the issue has become a means for two ambitious politicians to improve their public images. Speculation that Bourassa may not seek re-election quickened last week when he returned to a clinic in Maryland for tests following cancer surgery in September. Bacon, with her firm defence of Bourassa’s hydrobased strategy for the Quebec economy, is clearly poised to inherit her mentor’s mantle. But Paradis’s maverick stand holds potential appeal for Quebecers’ growing environmental sensibilities. Their rivalry may eventually determine whether much of the northeastern United States plugs into Quebec power for decades to come. Meanwhile, it is providing an illuminating glimpse into the competing ambitions of at least two of Bourassa’s would-be successors.

DAN BURKE

in Montreal with

GREG W. TAYLOR

in Toronto