Environment James Bay Project Essay

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¶ … Cree's Opposition to the James Bay Hydroelectric Dam Project

Canada is one of the leading producers and users of hydroelectric power, and, its electricity production has been considered "green" or better for the environment because of that usage. However, it is inaccurate to portray hydroelectric power production as environmentally neutral, because the projects do have lasting impacts on the environment. One project in particular, the James Bay Hydroelectric Dam Project, created an extensive amount of damage in land considered undeveloped or under-developed by many in Quebec, but which was composed of traditional tribal land of the Cree. The resulting dispute between the Cree and the electricity company became one of the more heated political disputes of the 1990s, because both sides had a tremendous amount at stake.Get full Download Microsoft Word File access
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Essay on Environment James Bay Project Assignment

In fact, while the environmental impact of the dams and the resulting damage sustained by the Cree and the Inuit are important issues, it is important to realize that the conflict is appropriately characterized as a political conflict. Up until that point in time, Canada had been able to treat Quebec and the aboriginal tribes as if their interests were similar. However, as modernization became a more pressing concern, conflict between traditional aboriginal ways and modern life was bound to occur (Hornig, 1999). If the Cree and the Inuit are sovereign nations, then they should have a voice at least equal to that of Quebec's government in the construction of dams and roads on traditional tribal lands. However, the projects were planned without any significant aboriginal input, and without looking at what type of impact the project would have on the Cree and the Inuit. However, the politicization of the issue also made it unlikely that the parties could compromise. If the use of the land involves a conflict of interest, then the parties have room to compromise. However, the more politicized the issue became; the more people began to frame it as an issue of rights, making compromise far more unlikely (Hornig, 1999). Had these issues been addressed before the project, with real environmental impact assessments completed, it is likely that the parties could have compromised on the issue.

As early as the 1950s, Quebec's government began investigating using its northern rivers for hydroelectric power. However, the issue was politically fraught, because the northern lands were traditional tribal lands. Furthermore, the costs of the project seemed prohibitive. Therefore, the plans were shelved until the 1970s. Then, Premier Robert Bourassa pushed for the James Bay Hydroelectric Project. He had many reasons for urging its construction. First, Quebec was not fully modernized, and he felt that bringing affordable and reliable electricity to the area would increase modernization. Furthermore, Quebec was experience a bit of economic recession and was plagued by high unemployment. Bourassa felt that beginning a construction project of the magnitude of the James Bay Project would help stimulate the local economy. Therefore, on April 30, 1971, Bourassa revealed his plans for the James Bay Project. "Two months later, the feasibility study being conducted by Hydro-Quebec had not even been completed, but the construction of roads into the James Bay Area began" (Foley & Hamm, 1992). This type of hastiness marked much of the project, and probably resulted in the project having a greater environmental impact than necessary to achieve program goals.

The first plans proposed two alternative projects, one focused on the southern rivers and one focused on the northern rivers. In May 1972, the government selected the northern rivers. That project called for the construction of four power generating stations on the La Grande River, and diversion of the Eastmain and Caniapiscau Rivers into the La Grande watershed. Hydro-Quebec was in charge of running a mixed public-private corporation, Societe d'energie de la Baie-James, which was in charge of the project. It is very difficult to understand the scope of the project without a basic understanding of Quebec. The James Bay Project is a "series of dams and dikes stretching a total of 41 miles (66 km) to shepherd the region's wild rivers through three power stations before they flow into Jams and Hudson bays" (Coffee, 1992). The original plans called for the "construction of more than 200 structures to alter the courses of 19 waterways, even to the point of reversing the flow of one major river, the Caniapiscau, and the creation of 10,000 square miles (25,900 square kilometers) of reservoirs" (Coffee, 1992). Even in a space as vast as Quebec's northern territories, the scope of the project was massive. In fact, "the reservoir created by the damming of just the Caniapiscau River is now the largest lake in Quebec" (Coffee, 1992). Moreover, the project was massive financially, as well. It was a $13.7 billion dollar project, which meant that the stakes were high for Hydro-Quebec, as well as for the Cree an Inuit (Marsh, 2010).

Obviously, the construction of hydroelectric power generating units and the diversion of rivers into a watershed would inevitably lead to flooding, but little research was done into the impact of the flooding. That is largely due to the fact that, at that time, environmental assessments were not required under Quebec Law. The first major environmental impact of the project was the construction of roads into the area. The Cree had hunting and trapping areas in the region, but there were no roads in the area. Moreover, the Cree did not want the roads constructed and opposed the construction of the dams and processing units. The Cree and some Inuit took the position that the government was violating treaties by taking actions that would destroy traditional hunting and trapping lands. This opposition only increased when the Cree and the Inuit were informed of the hydroelectric project, which did not occur until after construction for the access road had begun.

Construction of the access roads led to serious environmental and social effects; in fact, it is suggested that the construction of the roads actually had a greater environmental impact than the construction of the dams (Hornig, 1999). It is undoubted that the construction of the access roads had a greater social impact on the aboriginal tribes than the construction of the dams had. Before these roads were constructed, there were no roads in the area. While there were paths or means for travel, there was no real way for outsiders to access the tribal lands. Moreover, travel within the tribal lands was greatly limited. While the lack of roads may have contributed to isolation and created its own social problems, relative isolation meant that social problems were unlikely to spread quickly through isolated regions. Furthermore, the Cree and the Inuit were isolated from outside influences; and those outside influences quickly permeated traditionally isolated areas, effectively robbing them of an isolated, traditional life.

However, it would be misleading to suggest that the Cree and the Inuit had their traditional lands stolen from them. In 1975, Cree and the Inuit entered into the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement with the governments of Canada and Quebec. That agreement granted the Cree and the Inuit exclusive hunting and fishing rights to much of the territory in question. More significantly, it provided both tribes with approximately $250 million in financial compensation in return for them allowing the James Bay Project to proceed. The Cree also got concessions from the government: first, the government agreed that they would build one of the power stations further away from a Chisasibi, a Cree village, than was initially planned; second, the government agreed to provide for environmental follow-up for the James Bay Hydroelectric Project and for environmental assessments for future projects. However, even after reaching this agreement with the government, and accepting compensation for some of the takings, the Cree decided that the damage to their culture and social structure was so severe that they needed to bring suit to stop the project (Coffee, 1992). This was not simply a case of buyer's remorse; the Cree had legitimate arguments that the utility company had failed to perform the required environmental impact assessments and was pressing forward with construction of more hydroelectric plants despite low demand (Foley & Hamm, 1992). Of course, Hydro-Quebec's position is that its agreement with the Cree included approval for all of the proposed James Bay Area projects, including one on the Great Whale River (Foley & Hamm, 1992). Various lawsuits have brought the James Bay Project to halt, while the courts could determine if the project should continue. This was just one in a series of lawsuits, some of which have been decided in favor of the Cree and others opposed to the James Bay Project, others of which have been decided in favor of the government and Hydro-Quebec. The net result is that construction of the dams and affiliated projects has at times been slowed or altered, but has never been completely stopped.

One of the major problems is that Hydro-Quebec was not required to do an environmental assessment before beginning its project. Environmental assessments are critical, but… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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