For the 500 Cree Indians of Whapmagoostui, a remote village located at the mouth of the Great Whale River on the eastern shore of James Bay, the announcement represented a serious threat to their centuries-old way of life. Last week, a senior federal environment official admitted that Ottawa may not have the legal authority to stop Quebec from building a 200-km road as part of its plans to develop the hydroelectric potential of the Great Whale River. Opposition critics accused federal Environment Minister Robert de Cotret of weakness in his negotiations with the Quebec government for not demanding that a complete federal environmental assessment of the entire project take place before any road construction begins. And Whapmagoostui Cree Chief Robbie Dick predicted that the James Bay II project will destroy his community’s hunting, fishing and trapping grounds. Said Dick: “As far as we’re concerned, they’re going to go ahead with it no matter what we say.”
The Great Whale project, valued at $6 billion and scheduled for completion by 1998, is part of the second phase of Hydro Quebec’s massive James Bay complex of dams, dikes, river diversions, reservoirs and powerhouses. If all three phases are completed on schedule, early in the next century, James Bay will be one of the largest hydroelectric complexes in the world. For more than a year, Ottawa and Quebec have tried to reach an agreement on the scope and duration of environmental hearings into the Great Whale complex. Ottawa has proposed one set of hearings to cover the entire project, including roads, airports, construction camps and the hydroelectric facilities themselves. But Quebec has insisted on two sets of hearings, one for the infrastructure, the other for the dams, reservoirs and powerhouses.
For the province, as well as opponents of the projects, the structure of the hearings has become a crucial issue. Quebec wants to begin constructing the road early in 1991. In order to stick to its schedule, the provincial government wants separate hearings on the infrastructure because the hearings could be concluded much more quickly than a comprehensive review of the entire project. The Cree, and some environmentalists, say that if the one part is approved and built, it will be impossible to stop construction of the hydro facilities.
Last week, officials in the Federal Environ-
mental Assessment Review Office acknowledged that Ottawa may have to accept Quebec’s plan. In a letter to the federal-provincial committee that is attempting to devise the rules for an environmental assessment, Raymond Robinson, executive chairman of the review office, said that under the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, the hydroelectric projects are considered a provincial jurisdiction. As a result, Quebec has resisted Ottawa’s demands for one comprehensive environmental review. The letter was made public by members of the Grand Council of the Cree, who are participating in the negotiations.
Opposition critics, as well as environmentalists, immediately accused de Cotret of attempting to avoid hearings in order to appease Quebec. Said James Fulton, environment critic in Parliament for the New Democratic Party: “A political fix is being attempted. Once Que-
bec has spent $600 million on roads to the wrong places and airports to the wrong locations, they will simply demand the right to proceed with all the dams.”
As the controversy unfolded in Ottawa, Quebec Environment Minister Pierre Paradis joined the attack on de Cotret and supported the position of the opposition critics. Paradis has been pressing for one set of comprehensive hearings, and some analysts say he was counting on Ottawa’s support. As a result, he has been involved in an intense battle with Quebec Energy Minister Lise Bacon. A close political ally of Premier Robert Bourassa, Bacon wants the hearings split and conducted quickly so that Hydro Quebec can meet its construction timetable for the Great Whale project.
For his part, de Cotret tried to deflect criticism by insisting that Ottawa does have the authority to delay the project until a satisfactory environmental assessment has been con-
ducted. He said that Ottawa could withhold construction permits pending the outcome of a review of the hydroelectric facilities.
While the political debate over the Great Whale project remains unresolved, Dick said that the Cree will continue their attempts to prevent construction of the huge hydroelectric complex. He added that the influx of workers and the construction of roads and reservoirs in his band’s isolated territory will destroy the culture of the small native community. He also noted that the Great Whale River flows through a deep valley, which provides the best wildlife habitat in the territory. Now, the Cree say that if Hydro Quebec goes ahead with its plans, the land will be flooded to generate electricity. For both the Cree and Hydro Quebec, the Great Whale project has become a high-stakes dispute.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.