After he was appointed federal environment minister last April, Jean Charest carefully skirted the prickly issue of Quebec’s gigantic program to further harness the hydroelectric energy of James Bay tributary rivers. Aware of the grief that befell his predecessors on the question, the new minister chose to postpone a decision on how to tackle the burgeoning controversy over the environmental impact of a proposed $12.7-billion hydroelectric project on the Great Whale River in northern Quebec. But last week in Montreal, Charest finally acted, unveiling plans for a broad—and unilateral—federal assessment of the project, which is opposed by natives living near the Great Whale River and by environmental groups. Far from settling the dispute, however, Charest quickly found that he had alienated proponents and opponents of the scheme alike. “We will not accept being subject to orders that come from a federal committee,” declared Quebec Energy Minister Lise Bacon. On the other side of the dispute, after Charest left the way open for work to proceed during the federal study, Bill Namagoose, executive director of the Grand Council of the Crees of Quebec, labelled Charest’s program “a sham and a farce.”
Such outraged reaction may have been unavoidable given the increasingly complex and conflicting concerns at play in the huge engineering project. Quebec’s plan, which would augment hydro power systems built during the 1970s and 1980s in the James Bay region, calls for the construction by 1998 of four reservoirs, 154 dikes and three power stations capable of churning out 3,168 megawatts of electricity. Overall, the project would divert five rivers and flood 1,760 square miles of land. The area’s Cree and Inuit inhabitants, who fear that the development will destroy their hunting and fishing grounds, are seeking a comprehensive review. But the Quebec authorities insist on a two-step process, beginning with an environmental study of the infrastructure—575 km of roads and three airports—and then a separate
assessment of the dams and generating stations. Their aim is to allow Hydro Quebec to begin work on the infrastructure as early as this fall. Critics say that none of the work should proceed until the entire project is reviewed.
Both the Quebec government and the native groups have been marshalling support over the
past few months. The province assembled a broad coalition of big business and organized labor. The natives called upon Canadian and international environmental, native and social action groups. To further complicate matters, the Cree have a team of six lawyers working virtually full time on seven different legal blocking actions in various provincial and federal courts. “The object,” said Robert Mainville, one of the Cree’s lawyers, “is to keep Hydro Quebec on the defensive.”
In the plan that he unveiled in Montreal, Charest attempted to steer a difficult—perhaps impossible—middle course. Responding
to the demand for a comprehensive review, Charest said that “an environmental assessment must be done globally, not piece by piece.” To that end, he announced that a seven-member federal review commission will hold public hearings on the project beginning this fall. The commission’s mandate is to examine the full range of environmental and social implications of all stages of the project.
But that plan drew a quick rebuff from the Quebec government. It even prompted Energy Minister Bacon and Environment Minister Pierre Paradis, who have been publicly feuding over James Bay for more than a year, to offer a rare united stand on the issue. Bacon threatened legal action to block the federal review on constitutional grounds. And Paradis, who personally opposes his own government’s decision to split the review process into two stages, nevertheless declared: “It is not our intention to submit hydroelectric developments to directives emanating from a federal commission. This is a provincial jurisdiction.”
At the same time, Charest annoyed native groups by refusing to declare a moratorium on construction during the federal assessment. Indeed, Charest expressed doubts about Ottawa’s authority to prevent Hydro Quebec from starting work on the infrastructure before the review panel completes its task. Said Charest: “It’s not clear whether we have the power to stop them.” Charest’s equivocal stance drew sharp rebukes from native representatives. Said Brian Craik, director of federal-provincial relations for the Grand Council of the Crees: “Once they get the roads and airports built, it will be too 9 late to stop the rest of the I project, no matter what a federal review recommends.” Craik added that the Cree will likely refuse to participate in the federal review and will continue to fight the project
in the courts and, if necessary, through civil disobedience.
In fact, the next salvo in the natives’ legal battle is scheduled to take place this week when Federal Court hearings begin on a Cree attempt to force Ottawa to implement more stringent environmental tests than those already announced. As a result of that challenge, and others on the horizon, Charest’s attempt to find a middle path through the controversy is likely to lead him only into an increasingly hazardous political minefield.
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