Power from Rivers sold to New York

By Dr. John Bacher

In late April 2001, media attention was riveted around the tear gas soaked streets of Quebec City.

A major figure in the popular summit held against globalization was Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief, Matthew Coon Come, who was revered as an environmental hero for his leading role in the 1994 defeat of the proposed James Bay Two hydro-electric project.

The thousands of demonstrators, many of which braved water cannons, did not know that Coon Come had a change of values and would be soon in secret negotiations with the Quebec government to plan to build new hydro power dams.

This involved the same massive assault on intact forest ecosystems that many of the demonstrators had denounced both in Quebec City, and in earlier summits held in Seattle and Washington in connection with the World Trade Organization and the World Bank.

Those engaged on charging the fence in Quebec city and the reporters covering the action, were unaware of the secretive deal making between the AFN chief and the Quebec government. This would later be announced in the surprise Agreement in Principle, (AIP), signed October 23rd, 2001, in which the Cree Nation of Northern Quebec gave its consent to the diversion of the Rupert River.

Although the surprise signing ceremony for the AIP was broadcast live on CBC Newsworld, critical details of the agreement were ignored in media coverage. Especially sparse and misleading were details concerning the nature of the environmental assessments that would be required for the most controversial aspect of the AIP.

Proposed river diversion
This involved the proposed diversion of the Rupert River. It was agreed upon by some of the elected Cree leadership in this document, following a month of secret meetings, after Grand Chief Ted Moses was introduced to Quebec Premier Bernard Landry, by Coon Come.

In following the environmental assessment issue closely since the AIP was signed, media coverage of it has been confusing and misleading.

I have been frequently been corrected by relying on the web site of the small organization fighting this project, Rupert Reverence, for key details such as necessary regulatory approvals.

Rupert Reverence is an environmental group based on both French and Cree activists in the James Bay region. It so far fought a brave struggle against the diversion with few allies. Half of its 12-member board are Quebec James Bay Cree. The organization is co-chaired by Eric Gagnon and Lisa Petagumskum.

The first stage of the new James Bay power scheme, the EM-1, which consists of the construction of a new dam, reservoir and generating station on the Eastmain river, would not require an environmental assessment. Unless this project is cancelled by the Quebec government, construction will begin in the spring of 2003.

What will be subject to a joint federal-provincial assessment, expected to take place over two years, is the EM-1a.

This would involve the diversion of 92 percent of the Rupert’s water at the cutoff point to Eastmain River, which is 100 kilometers to the north, and subsequently to La Grande River. A dam will have to raise water levels 28 feet to make the diversion possible.

Critics charge that part of the motivation for Rupert diversion is to maintain existing reservoirs from the original James Bay One project, which were constructed over strong Cree protests in the 1970s. Reservoir capacities are already being reduced by global warming, and such problems are predicted to become worse in the near future.

Rupert Diversion will damage environment
The proposed Rupert River diversion is one of the most environmentally destructive mega projects currently being considered in the western hemisphere.

The $10 billion proposal would involve the flooding of 1,000 square kilometers of old growth boreal forest, the construction of four dams and 51 dikes. It would require 12 kilometers of diversion channels.

The project would impact 165 lakes and five rivers. Some 555 kilometers of the Rupert would be drained, turning some sections of the river into a dry ditch.

The Rupert diversion would eliminate the habitat of one of the continent’s largest remaining populations of native brook trout and that of unusual fresh water shrimps. It would also disrupt the sanctuaries of many bird species, including one of the last eastern North American refuges for the Golden Eagle [1].

There is nothing on the scale of the Rupert River diversion that is being proposed in terms of harmful environmental impacts anywhere in the proposed free trade zone of the Americas. No major protests in any city have taken place against the Rupert River diversion in vivid contrast to the massive Quebec City “anti-globalization” protests in April 2001.

One October 2002 demonstration, against small-scale dams in southern Quebec in front of Hydro-Quebec’s Montreal offices, was recently joined by a few Friends of Rupert River who drove down for the occasion.

Low standards to blame
The attempt to divert the Rupert River has nothing to do with harmonization of Canadian law to lower international standards. It is instead an archaic relic of low environmental standards in both Canada and Quebec, which give a sinister new meaning to the notion of a distinct society.

This distinction paradoxically shared by the neighboring province of Newfoundland and Labrador. It is attempting the only similar scale massive hydro-electric dam in North America, the proposed $12 billion Churchill Falls Two project. It has as been mocked as “The Two Gorges Dam” by its Innu and environmental foes.

In the rest of the continent, considerable effort is being made to dismantle existing dams in an era where co-generation, conservation and renewable power promises cleaner energy paths. Mega dams involving flooding native communities have all stopped in the United States, since such schemes were canceled by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, in 1977 [2].

The media saturation of the Quebec Summit, which included lengthy hours of live coverage over four days and the back page treatment of the AIP signing held in the same city four months later, illustrates the confusing and misleading nature of “anti-globalization struggles”.

These are based on opposition to free trade agreements, and international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, (IMF) and the World Bank.

Before the Cree capitulation in October 2002, in what has become known as the “Peace of the Brave”, the alliance between the Cree Nation of Quebec and environmentalists had been so powerful because it was focused on the decisions of elected governments.

Targeted governments included Quebec, Canada, and state authorities in the United States that sought to buy electricity to be generated by the proposed James Bay Two Project. This was later canceled by a 1994 decision of the newly elected Quebec Premier, Jacques Parizeau, after a six- year battle.

The alliance between the Cree Nation of Quebec and environmentalists around the world pointed to paradoxes in “anti-globalization” struggle. These are ignored in simplistic mantras of both the media, and the type of left critics that it rivets attention on.

Part of the successful campaign by native people and environmentalists across North America to kill James Bay Two was to expose how the project, proposed to be conducted by Hydro-Quebec, a crown corporation owned completely by the Quebec government, was in fact in violation of the laws of free trade organized by the General Agreements on Tarriffs and Trade (GATT). Its laws are the focus of many anti-globalization protests.

GATT violations
The violation of GATT came about since large power users in Quebec, which include many highly polluting industries such as aluminum refining, obtain their power below cost, with prices fluctuating according to commodity pricing.

Such subsidies are in violation of GATT and are unique. These contracts were kept secret by the Quebec government, but were eventually published because of the courage of a native journalist, of the Kahniakehaka (Mohawk) nation, Kanentioo, (Doug George). Kanentioo at the time was editor of the Akwesasne based paper Indian Times.

The big media in Canada all bowed to the pressure of the Quebec government not to publish the big power contracts. They were instead exposed in a small native community weekly Indian Times, which has a distinguished history of environmental concern and opposition to organized crime and has also featured several articles critical of the AIP and the Rupert diversion.

The ignoring of these contracts and issues associated with changes in Cree politics since September 2002, is a terrible indication of media self-censorship, favourable to corporate interests in logging and hydro electric development [3].

Cree alliance
The alliance between the Cree and environmentalists around the world exposed the paradoxes and duplicities behind the rhetoric of trade laws and the reality. Not only were the assaults of Hydro-Quebec a state subsidized swindle which violated rational market principles for energy which would favor conservation and renewables, but the logging of the Cree’s lands were and remain unfairly cheapened by the largesse of the state.

The Cree together with the Natural Resources Defense Council, exposed this reality by defending American soft wood lumber tariffs against Canada, based largely on the low fees collected on timber harvested on crown lands.

The reality of the subsidized nature of old growth forest destruction in Canada is ignored by many Canadians in the “anti-globalization” movement, notably such high profile gurus as Naomi Klein and Maude Barlow.

Prominent and outspoken in the Quebec City protests, they have been silent on the issue of the future of the Rupert and environmental issues in the homeland of the northern Cree. Both and their associated institutions, such as the Council of Canadians, have tended to side with efforts to use international trade law to defeat environmental conservation efforts by the U.S. government.

They have never indicated how Canadian government subsidies to logging old growth forests are a violation of both international and continental trade law. Part of the relief in the signing of the AIP expressed in both editorials in the few dailies which gave detailed coverage of it, was that the Cree would no longer confront Canada in the controversial, never ending, softwood lumber dispute with the U.S. [4].

The alliance between the Cree and environmentalists is typical of the potency of similar common causes around the world to defend sustainable human cultures from the assault of industrial resource extraction.

Such successful battles include the recent victory of the U’wa of Columbia against oil exploration, similar victories over oil by the Gwich’in in Alaska and the Yukon and the Haida nation’s winning of the South Moresby National Park Reserve against powerful logging lobbies.

Frequently such struggles involve the defense of environmentally sustainable human cultures, such as the Gwich’in way of life based on the abundance of the 180,000 strong Porcupine caribou herd.

The imagery of assisting sustainable cultures to thrive and survive is quite powerful, and has been compared by Gwich’in leader Sarah James, to being able to go back into time to defend the great plains buffalo grazing way of life from the assaults of 19th century colonizing greed.

Indeed, one of the reasons for one of the Gwich’in’s many victories, is that they were helped by the release of the film, “Dances with Wolves.” It is difficult for even the most powerful corporations to win in such dramatic public relations battles of looters versus Indians, at least in democratic societies. [5]

Filmmaker questions power
One native activist who clearly understands the power of the alliance between environmentalists and native communities is the Kahniakehaka filmmaker, and photographer, Ronkwetason. Ronkwetason for the past 14 years has worked closely with traditional leaders from across North and South America.

In a recent article in the Cree magazine Nation, Ronkwetason wrote that: “If the northern Cree Nation and others agree to sell their rivers and territory for profit and agree to more road for construction companies and buyers, what do they think will happen?

“The Ojibway Nation on Bear Island is surrounded by companies taking, taking, and taking, while cottages and homes of rich owners are serviced by colonizers. The animals and fish and birds who we respect and who give us life do not deserve to be treated badly by construction workers and developers or people with no spiritual foundation. Pollution, and contamination are in the cities.

“Motorboats, trains, buses, cars, trucks, planes are now everywhere, but to agree on the multiplication of these things is suicide to spiritual people.”

Ronkwetason believes that, “In many ways Northern Quebec compares to the Amazon, the way the Amazon used to be. Because it is so rich with animals, amazing animals, beautiful fish and beautiful birds, all with voices of their own; it compares to the Amazon because of its rich magnificent rivers.… The northern Cree Nation has a chance to protect their children’s future, their culture and Mother Earth.”[6]

Not only do environmentally concerned voters show a growing inclination to support native struggles for cultural survival, but these attitudes are also gaining growing strength in the legal profession, among law scholars and in the courts.

Legal opinion in all the formerly white settler dominated former colonies of British Commonwealth, is casting off authoritarian, racist doctrines of conquest and “discovery” in favour of the recognition to aboriginal title on the basis of functioning governments before the time of European contact.

This had been the basis of the 1888 dogmas of the St. Catharines Milling Case, in which the Imperial Privy Council maintained that aboriginal title was held at the pleasure of the crown.

This was swept away in December 11, 1997, when the Supreme Court of Canada issued the Delgammuuk decision. This upheld the right of aboriginal nations to protect sacred lands and environmental features that were the basis for their subsistence economy.

Here Chief Justice C. J. Lamer stressed that aboriginal title, “encompasses the right to exclusive use and occupation of land in order to engage in those activities which are aboriginal rights themselves.”

He indicated that, “if a group claims a special bond with the land based on its ceremonial or cultural significance it may not use the land in such a way to destroy that relationship (example: by developing it in such a way that the bond is destroyed, perhaps by turning it into a parking lot.” [7] )

Evolution of Canadian law
The evolution of Canadian law forced the Cree leadership of northern Quebec to be in a position where they would either use the courts to exclude industrial extraction from their traditional lands, or become, through agreements with governments, partners in exploitation.

This stark choice was provided by the strange combination of the growing strength of Canadian law to give native communities the right to protect their traditional subsistence economies, and the political weakness of the environmental movement in Quebec.

While in some provinces, notably Ontario and British Columbia, alliances between environmentalists, native communities and the New Democratic Party, have resulted in the cancellation of major hydro electric projects, such a red-green dynamic which combines native rights with the protection of the environment through social democratic activism is tragically weak in Quebec.

Nowhere else in Canada are such few areas off limits to hydro electrical development and logging.

From the defeat of James Bay Two in November 1994 right up to secret negotiations with Coon Come and Landry in September 2002 following a major Cree court victory, the Cree Nation of Northern Quebec displayed, co-operating with environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, an exemplary single minded determination to use publicity and court battles to protect their old growth boreal forests from industrial exploitation.

This was fiercely contested with Quebec, at one point in the year 2000, involving the cutting off of funds owed to the Cree for education. These payments were authorized under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, (JBNQA) signed in 1973 by the Cree in exchange for dropping their legal challenges to the James Bay One project.

The last dispute was a September 6, 2001 Court of Appeal victory by the Cree of Northern Quebec against the Quebec government’s refusal to make such payments. This victory was shortly followed by Quebec’s invitation to make a compromise after it lost the ability to blackmail the Crees by the threat of an arbitrary cut off of JBNQA money.

The issue that led to the “Peace of the Brave” was originally the Cree opposition to clear cut logging. This was still at the time subject to intense conflict, involving a Cree complaint to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, to obtain the re-accusation of Justice Corteau.

This was the first time that a judge had been removed from hearing a constitutional case in Canadian history, a decision that emerged from a $700 million lawsuit by the Cree Nation and an individual trapper, Mario Lord.
The Cree campaign, which included advertisements in American newspapers against government subsidized clear cutting, was done in co-operation with native communities suffering from clear cutting both British Columbia and Ontario.

In June 2002, the Grand Council of the Cree, met with the Ontario Nishnawbe Aski Nation, to develop a joint strategy to, in the words of a joint press release, “investigate the allegations of illegal subsidies provided by Canada and its provinces to the forest industry.” [8]

In the October 23rd agreement, the Cree took a disturbing comprehensive approach to be joint exploiters, rather than protectors of their traditional territories.

In defending the agreement, both Grand Chief Ted Moses and Bill Namagoose, the Executive Director of the Grand Council, stressed on a number of occasions that the Cree were the “owners”, rather than the mere “janitors”, of their traditional territory.

The term janitor is a harsher version of the word, “custodian”, which is close to traditional native concepts of a nation being a trustee for the protection of nature and future generations, rather than a short-term exploiter of the land. [9]

In addition to approving the diversion of the Rupert River, the AIP committed the Cree to drop litigation to protect forests. In exchange to dropping litigation, the Cree agreed to the creation of a joint advisory forestry board, to which the Quebec government will appoint the majority of members.

The Cree were also promised a greater share of revenues from logging, being promised a 350,000 meter wood allocation over the next five years.

Although the Cree leadership that supported the deal initially stressed the proposed project involved only one eighth of the flooding proposed by the much larger James Bay Two project, such arguments stopped being used after the Quebec government signed a similar AIP with the Inuit.

It proposes to conduct environmental assessments for other projects on their territory to the north of the Cree, which could possibly involve an effort to build dams on the Great Whale River, which straddles the lands of the two nations.

The wide scope of the studies to be undertaken with the Inuit, indicate that the Quebec government has not abandoned plans, heralded by former Quebec Premier, Robert Bourassa, to undertake major power projects on every northern Quebec river.

Native activists and environmentalists will have their work cut out for them as long as there are developers like Matthew Coon Come and Ted Moses.

AIP Financial incentives
The AIP was drafted in a number of ways to give financial incentives for the Cree to favour resource exploitation over conservation in their fragile boreal forest homeland, creating a framework of co-exploitation.

The Cree agreed to pay more of the costs of environmental regulatory enforcement. Payments to the Cree under the agreement, unlike the previous 1975 deal, which was not tied to such considerations, are intended, “to reflect the evolution of the activity in the James Bay territory in the hydroelectricity, forestry and mining sectors.”[10]

Since the AIP was signed on October 23rd, 2001, there has been a growing opposition in Northern Quebec Cree communities, to the approach of co-exploitation. Support for this approach by the majority of the Cree elected leadership, has resulted in the emergence of growing counter political forces, which challenge plans for the diversion of the Rupert River.

This political mobilization of Cree grass roots against their elected leadership is a new and growing movement, which is assisted in co-operation with Cree communities in Ontario, natives from around North America and environmentalists who earlier helped defeat the James Bay Two project.

When the Cree agreed to drop litigation to prevent the completion of James Bay One there was intense opposition from this compromise within their nation.

A court challenge to the Supreme Court of Canada, based on upholding the Cree’s initial court victory, which stopped construction for eight days, had the possibility of preventing the water from being diverted into empty reservoirs although most of the project was constructed.

Although politically difficult, this was not a physical impossibility as the ultimately successful Austrian opposition to nuclear power would display. Through a referendum, Austrian environmentalists prevented a plant from being opened, which was already built, despite the expenditure of billions in pubic funds.

The elected Cree leadership and their legal team had to persuade unhappy communities to accept the JBNQA as a palliative to giving up judicial action against James Bay One.

The AIP debate became the first time that an overt Cree strategy of co-exploitation became subject to political challenge.

Much of the elected Cree leadership and their paid staff had earlier privately agreed with such an approach. This was not openly expressed to their electorate because the 1975 signing of the JBNQA and withdrawal of the Supreme Court of Canada appeal against James Bay One was presented as simply salvaging the best deal possible in the face of inevitable defeat.

Only with the AIP would they defend an overt strategy of participation in industrial scale resource exploitation to generate Cree revenues. This has generated substantial opposition and debate.

Although the AIP was approved in a referendum with 69.7 percent support, the deal was not approved by the majority of Cree voters. Only 38 percent participated in the referendum. This meant that the deal had only the support of fewer than 25 percent of eligible Cree voters.

There were many irregularities with the approval of the AIP. The referendum was conducted separately by different voting days in eight Cree communities. The results were announced between the votes. The wording of the question varied in each of the communities.

Chisasibi votes against AIP
One Cree community, Chisasibi, did vote against the AIP. It sits at the foot of the La Grande river reservoir whose waters are projected to rise at least six feet if the Rupert River diversion is completed.

The community of 3,000 people was earlier moved forty-four miles inland from the James Bay coast from the original James Bay One project. It has one of the world’s highest rates of mercury contamination among its residents, which since 1985 have been found to be above safe limits established by the United Nation’s World Health Organization.

These high mercury levels came about as a result of eating fish contaminated by the release of mercury from flooded soils into surface waters. Before James Bay One destroyed the La Grande rapids, 20 per cent of this community’s diet came from whitefish taken from this source [11].

Opposition is still growing in Cree communities to the diversion of the Rupert River. This was vividly indicated in the summer 2001 elections for Grand Chief. The diversion was challenged soon after the AIP was signed by the then Deputy Grand Chief, Matthew Mukash.

He denounced the deal as an ominous “wake up call to protect the earth and much more”.

On an August 28th election for Grand Chief, Ted Moses defeated Mukash by only 28 votes in a tight 2,139 to 2,111 race. Mukash had especially strong support in Chisasibi, winning by more than two to one, far higher than the narrow defeat of the AIP in this community.

This election, received a much greater turnout than the AIP referendum. Some 51% of eligible voters took part, although only 38% of eligible electors voted in the AIP referendum. This meant that Moses received 1,000 fewer votes than those who voted in favor of the AIP.

Divisions among the Cree were further intensified by the opposition to electoral irregularities.

Some 30 employees of the Chee-Bee Construction Company, which has done work for Hydro-Quebec, signed an official complaint that their employer did not allow them time to go to vote.

This construction company gave its employees time off to vote in previous Cree elections. The election result was also contested by the Mocreebec band council based in Moose Factory, Ontario, which complained that 500 potential voters were not given the opportunity to cast ballots [12].

In a recent letter to the editor of the Cree magazine The Nation, Ronkwetason has given one of the most eloquent pleas for the Cree to return to their traditions as protectors of rivers, noting that,

“Short-term jobs that kill life, jobs that kill rivers, lakes or fish are genocidal jobs. To displace people and animals is against natural law. We are natural people, we must remain natural people. We must follow natural law. We cannot sleep when the earth is destroyed.” [13].

Author’s Footnotes
1. Media comments are based on an intensive reading of the Montreal Gazette, the Toronto Star, and the Toronto Globe & Mail, and listening to television and radio coverage on the CBC for two weeks after the AIP signing on October 23. None of this coverage indicated what parts of the proposed hydroelectric development could be canceled through environmental assessment.

For details of this important issue and information describing likely environmental impacts I have had to rely on the web site of Rupert Reverence.

2. Winona Laduke, “All our Relations”, (Cambridge: South End Press, 1999), p. 64; Assaults by dams on the land base of native Americans in the US stopped after US President Jimmy Carter in 1977 canceled the Orme Dam, which would have caused the relocation of the Fort McDowell Yavapai. See, Joy Bilharz, “The Allegany Senecas and Kinzua Dam”, ( Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), p. 29.

3. For a sense of how the subsidized contracts work see, Sean McCutcheon, “Electric Rivers”, (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1991), p.139. The remarkable courage of Kanetioo and his newspaper Indian Times, is detailed in, Bruce Johansen, “Life and Death in Mohawk Country”, (Golden, Colorado: North American Press, 1993) passim.

4. At the fall 2002 meeting of the Ontario Environment Network when I asked about the position of the Council of Canadians concerning the soft wood lumber dispute by representatives of an Ontario Environmental group, I was told that this was a delicate subject which should be discussed, “after the meeting.

5. Michael Bedford, “Saving a Refuge”, “Cultural Survival Quarterly”, Spring, 1992, pp. 38-42.

6. Danny Beaton, “Letter to the Editor”, “Nation”, October 4, 2002, p.6.

7. Stan Persky edited, “Delgamuukw : The Supreme Court of Canada Decision on Aboriginal Title”, (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1998), p. 93.

8. “Joint Press Release, July 5, 2002 : Nishnawbe Aski Nation and Grand Council of Crees Support Each Other in Softwood Lumber Dispute”

9. Moses used the term “janitors” in a derogatory fashion during the Agreement signing ceremony, which I watched while it was briefly broadcast on CBC national television. This also featured a Cree opponent of the being beaten by Cree police. Namagoose was earlier quoted in this approach in a Radio Netherlands Documentary, “The Battle for the River.”

He said that, “However, the Cree are a nation and as such we have the right to benefit from our own resources. Under this agreement there will be revenue sharing with Hydro Quebec. Europeans have a romantic notion of us as being stewards of the land. But we’re the owners of the land. Not the janitors.”

10. For details of the extensive debate on the AIP, see the “AIP package”. This was provided to me electronically by the environmentally concerned editor of “The Nation”, Will Nichools. The content of this debate was never covered by the mainstream press in Canada. Even more dramatically, there was a virtual blackout on the near defeat of Moses by Mukash and the intense arguments over election irregularities.

For earlier support of certain elements of Cree leadership for massive power dams on their territories providing they obtained sufficient revenue, see, Roy MacGregor, “Chief: The Fearless Vision of Billy Diamond” Harmondsworth: Peneguin, 1989), p.281. Based on his interviews with Cree leaders, MacGregor concluded that some, considered the possibility of “building the dams themselves, and selling the energy directly to the Americans. Nation to Nation.”

11. Boyce Richardson, “Strangers Devour the Land”, (Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1991), pp. 345-360.

12. Don’t Touch That Dial: Split Result and Irregularities Leads Mukash to Challenge Election Results”, “The Nation”, pp. 5, 8.

13. Beaton, loc.cit.