It has been three decades since the Cree stopped Hydro-Québec’s plans to dam the Great Whale River. That campaign gave us an in-depth education in government and corporate propaganda. So, when I was contacted by environmental groups in Maine and New York in July about a possible speaking engagement, it was no real surprise to learn that HQ is rehashing the same message: that hydro dams supply safe, renewable and sustainable energy.
After thinking about it, I agreed to a request from the North American Megadam Resistance Alliance (NAMRA) to participate in an online seminar on July 26. Despite their attempts to reach out to the Grand Council of the Crees, they couldn’t get anyone to speak about the effects of the dams on the Cree and Eeyou Istchee.
It was interesting to see how many activists were veterans from the battle over Great Whale. Many Americans, both new and old to the scene, wondered what had happened to the Cree and the land they loved so much. Were they in favour of Hydro-Québec’s plans to export more energy to the US? Are HQ’s statements true?
Hydro-Québec hopes to export 2,400 megawatts to the states of Massachusetts and New York. To do so they must build new transmission corridors. One goes through Maine, where many people oppose the construction. The state is holding a referendum on whether to allow it this fall. The other corridors go under rivers and lakes in New York. Both plans are being heavily contested or promoted by interested parties.
The webinar was a straightforward task. Negative impacts from hydro dams are clear to any Cree.
The latest is the Grand Council’s concerns about Hydro-Québec camps being high-risk areas because of Covid-19. These sites bring in workers from Montreal, which at one time was the seventh most deadly city in the world for daily deaths. HQ did not test any of these people to see if they were infected with Covid-19. The major problem with this is that the Cree communities are not set up to handle a severe outbreak. There are not enough beds, medical personnel and resources needed to deal with a major outbreak in Eeyou Istchee.
As for environmental impacts, shorelines around the dam are so shallow that, in places, there are dead zones where no vegetation can take hold because of fluctuations in water levels. No animals can live on the shoreline. Elders say that these should be one of the most productive areas for plant and animal life. In winter, the water fluctuations can cause air pockets under the ice, making it a dangerous place to travel.
Mercury is still a consideration. While local fish are recommended as a food item for all except pregnant women, it’s worth noting that two of our coastal communities have programs that deliver fish to people’s homes. Most of these fish are caught in the James Bay where mercury levels are lower.
Eel grass in James Bay is affected by the diversion of the Rupert and Eastmain rivers. Eel grass requires certain salinity levels, these have been affected by the diversions and it is dying off in places. Eel grass is a food source for migratory geese.
Another immediate impact of the diversions is that water channels the Cree depended on are disappearing. This is downright dangerous as boats can run aground or have their outboard motors damaged by hidden shoals that never existed before.
Roads used to create the La Grande complex and the diversions allowed hunters to easily access caribou herds. The George River herd is the heaviest hit, declining from 800,000 in the early 1990s to just 5,500 in 2018. The Leaf River herd fell from 600,000 to 200,000. Despite requests from the Cree to end the sports hunt that saw dead caribou lining the road as hunters kept trying for a trophy kill, Quebec only saw the last sports hunt in autumn 2017.
Hydro-Québec is saying in the US that there will be no more dams built and the power they are selling is surplus. If so, then one wonders about the statements made in the past to the Cree that this power was needed here because demand exceeded supply. That was why we lost the Rupert and Eastmain rivers, wasn’t it?
An added 2,400 megawatts will see HQ scrambling to fill that order. While they say they are not considering anything in Eeyou Istchee, one wonders whether this will be the case if push comes to shove. In any case, the claims of no problems do not ring true.