Is Hydro Quebec a Better Alternative to Vermont Yankee? Part 2: The James Bay project

by Angela Chagnon

This is part 2 of a two part series

While the 1960’s stands as a time of success and growth in Hydro Quebec’s history, the 70’s proved to be quite challenging for the utility. Although the James Bay Project shone an international spotlight on Hydro Quebec, the focus of that spotlight revealed a facet of the utility that most companies, especially ones managed by the government, would rather keep out of public view.

In 1971, then-Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa announced his plan to begin construction on the James Bay Project. Unfortunately for the Premier, his project encroached on the tribal lands of the Cree and Inuit Nations (the native tribes in Canada are known as the “First Nations”). The James Bay Cree, having had no prior notification of the project, protested strongly to the forcible taking of their lands and took their fight to Canada’s Supreme Court. The Court ruled in favor of the First Nations in November 1973, forcing Hydro Quebec to negotiate with the Cree for their land.

The final product of the difficult, two-year negotiations: The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, signed on November 1975.

Aspects of the agreement were as follows:

In addition to settling Native land claims and providing financial compensation, the agreements defined Native rights and established regimes for future relations between Natives and non-natives in the region and among local, regional, provincial and federal governments. The land settlement involved 5,543 square kilometres of settlement land for the Cree and 8,151 square kilometres of settlement land for the Inuit as well as exclusive harvesting rights over an additional 15,000 square kilometres of land. In return, the Cree and Inuit surrendered Aboriginal title to approximately 981,610 square kilometres of the James Bay/Ungava territory. —

Although the agreement remains the largest legal settlement in native history, hard feelings persist to this day between Hydro Quebec and the First Nations. There are even claims that the Cree signed the document under duress ( See also, HERE)

Bourassa apparently didn’t learn his lesson from the 1970’s skirmish. Re-elected in 1985, Bourassa soon began plans to again expand Hydro Quebec by proposing another hydroelectric project on the Great Whale River. This proposal became known as “The Great Whale Project” or “James Bay II”. Once again, implementation of the plan commenced without prior approval from the James Bay Cree.

In 1991, as construction began, the Cree, under the leadership of Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, launched their campaign against James Bay II by staging the successful canoe trip to New York to expose the unfair dealings of Hydro Quebec after which New York canceled its power contracts with the utility.

It should be noted that Matthew Coon Come is not a wild-eyed, environmental extremist. A born-again Christian, he studied political science and law at both Trent and McGill Universities, and received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Trent University in 1998.

Under Coon Come’s guidance, the Crees continued to fight the James Bay II project for several years, demanding respect for their land rights and calling for mandatory environmental reviews to first be completed for any proposed projects. The First Nations are dependent on their natural resources, as many of them, in the tradition of their ancestors, continue to live off the land.

The Cree’s worries of environmental damage were not groundless. High levels of mercury continue to be found in the fish that populate the water in and around Hydro Quebec’s hydroelectric dams . The power utility itself admits to the rise in mercury levels due to the dams’ impacts.

In 1994, faced with increasing opposition, international pressure and Court rulings in favor of the First Nations, then-Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau axed the Great Whale Project.

Calvin Luther Martin, PhD, a native of Quebec now living in New York, wants New Englanders to know what they’re getting into before signing any contracts with Hydro Quebec:

Do these governors and their staffs and the energy lobby know how controversial the whole James Bay Project is in Québec? Indeed, throughout Canada? And most especially among the James Bay Cree and Canada’s First Nations in general?

Martin’s informative article about the Hydro Quebec situation can be found here.

According to the Grand Council of the Crees, the nation wants their land to be free from the “secretive and authoritarian” clutches of Hydro Quebec, a utility with the absolute power of government behind it.

Does Hydro Quebec sound a like a great alternative to an in-state, self-contained, stationary nuclear plant that employs Vermonters? What say you?


Read part one of this series HERE.