Is Hydro Quebec a better alternative to Vermont Yankee?

by Angela Chagnon

This is part 1 of a two part series

Vermont’s political leaders frequently cite Vermonters’ pride of being eco-conscious and sensitive to the plight of less privileged people to get them to support certain issues. Certainly, we are mindful of the environment and by no means wish to oppress any group of people. Therefore it is important that Vermonters educate themselves on the true impact of choices that we, as a state, make in those respects to ensure that the issues we support are not hypocritical.

In light of the state’s recent plans to initiate purchase power contracts with Quebec’s mega-utility, Hydro Quebec, to replace Vermont Yankee, should Governor Shumlin succeed in shutting the nuclear plant down, Vermonters should know just who they are dealing with.

In 1991, Matthew Coon Come, the outspoken former Grand Chief of the Cree in Canada, organized a well-publicized canoe trip from James Bay, Quebec to a press conference in New York. The considerable publicity and outrage garnered by the subject of Coon Come’s press conference caused New York state to cancel its substantial power contracts with Hydro Quebec soon afterwards.

Now why would a simple canoe trip cause so much international consternation toward Hydro Quebec? Before that question is answered, it is important to first learn the history behind the utility.

Created in 1944 by the Quebec Legislative Assembly, Hydro Quebec began as and remains to this day a government-owned company. The legislative act establishing the utility also granted it an electric and gas distribution monopoly. As a result the company expanded rapidly, undertaking several construction projects to increase its electrical output to supply its growing demand. By the mid-sixties, Hydro Quebec had absorbed nearly all public and private power companies in the province.

The acquisition of most of these companies by the government-owned utility occurred during the 1960’s, under the liberal 19th Premier of Quebec, Jean Lesage. He is credited as the “Father of the Quiet Revolution”:

The Quiet Revolution was the 1960s period of intense change in Quebec, Canada, characterized by the rapid and effective secularization of society, the creation of a welfare state (État-providence) and a re-alignment of politics into federalist and separatist factions.

During his tenure, Lesage appointed Rene Levesque, a former TV reporter, to a government position overseeing Hydro Quebec. Levesque then devised a plan to nationalize the private power industry. The takeover of these companies was hostile:

The Lesage government was reelected on November 14, 1962 and Lévesque went ahead with the plan. On Friday, December 28, 1962 at 6 pm, Hydro-Québec launched an hostile takeover, offering to buy all of the stock in 11 companies at a set price, that was slightly above market value. After hedging their bets for a few weeks, management of the firms advised their shareholders to accept the C$604 million government offer.[18] In addition to buying the 11 companies, most electric co-operatives and municipally owned utilities were also taken over and merged with the existing Hydro-Québec operations, which became the largest electric company in Quebec on May 1, 1963.

But the story doesn’t end there. Needing even more electrical power to supply the increased demand, Hydro Quebec nearly made a nearly fatal error in 1971 by deciding to implement a grand plan for a massive hydroelectric dam in the James Bay – a plan that is now known as the infamous “James Bay Project”.

Read more in Friday’s edition of True North Reports