Canada Cree Now Back Power Project on Native Lands

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With that bitter experience behind them, Namagoose and his fellow Cree fought back with renewed vigor when new hydroelectricity plans in the 1980s threatened the Great Whale River and the James Bay, into which the Great Whale flows.

The Cree sued the government and, aligned with environmentalists, mounted an ambitious public information campaign in Canada and the United States.

New York and some states in New England had agreed to buy power from Hydro-Quebec. A proliferation of "Save the Bay" bumper stickers and other moves to block the project fueled public opposition, however, and the company finally backed off.

"I spent seven years of my life fighting hydroelectric projects on the Great Whale River," Namagoose recalled. "And in the end, it was my river."

A New Deal

Under the agreement in February between the Quebec government and the High Council of the Cree, the tribe will receive up to 2 percent of the revenue generated by Hydro-Quebec's new dam on the Rupert River. The Crees' revenue from this arrangement is estimated at $3.5 billion in Canadian currency (U.S.2.27 billion) over fifty years.

For its part, the High Council has agreed not to marshal its formidable will to oppose development.

The new deal has drawn criticism from environmentalists and others, even though many people say they understand the High Council's motives for accepting it.

"The Cree people are living in what can only be described as extreme poverty," said David Boyd, a professor of environmental law at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia. "Their leaders made a decision—a very difficult decision, I'm sure—to sacrifice some of the environment to reap the economic benefits of development in their region."

Continuing Opposition

In a reflection of environmentalists' concerns about the new hydroelectric complex, the nonprofit conservation group Earthwild International last week listed the Rupert as number one among Canada's most threatened rivers.

Namagoose argues that it's growing demand for electricity that is driving the construction of dams and related environmental impacts. "If environmentalists are serious about saving the Rupert—and preserving other rivers from future hydroelectric dam projects—they have to go to the demand side," he said.

That demand comes from both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border. Claudine Aucuit, a Hydro-Quebec spokeswoman, said, "We are building now for demand which will occur later, which is climbing." Ninety-six percent of the company's power comes from hydroelectricity, half of which is generated on Cree territory, she said.

Without Cree support, environmentalists aren't optimistic about halting the Rupert River plan. "We won't stop Hydro-Quebec," conceded Jacqueline Leroux of the nonprofit group Reverence Rupert.

Yet Leroux and her group's small coalition of kayakers, conservationists, and Cree who oppose the rivers' development are dedicated to educating people about the dam's possible damage to local ecotourism and fish stocks, and about alternative sources of energy.

If such efforts succeeded in reducing demand for energy use in Quebec and upper regions of the United States that are potential markets for Hydro-Quebec's electricity, there could be some relief for the Rupert, as well as for other rivers marked for the same fate.

Many opponents of the new hydroelectricity project are heartened by past success. Faced with consumer opposition to the use of energy from the Crees' native lands, developers eventually abandoned plans that also would have diverted the waters of the mighty Great Whale River.

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