For many nature-lovers the Moisie River is the most beautiful river on the North Shore of the St-Lawrence. The humid soil along this majestic river’s banks is fertile ground for a rich assortment of plants and herbs, which provide the Innu people with a virtual pharmacy of medicines for every ill.
The Moisie is also host to the largest spawning ground for Atlantic salmon in North America. Every year, thousands of salmon make their way from Greenland and Labrador to the Moisie. The Innu who live in Maliotenam, a community at the mouth of the river, have built a way of life around catching these fish.
Marie-Louise Fontaine is a 66-year-old Innu herbalist from Maliotenam. She speaks with dread about Hydro-Quebec’s plan to divert two of the Moisie’s main tributaries, which would drastically reduce the river’s flow. “The government can’t understand what this will do to us, the Innus,” she says. “We don’t think in the same way they do.”
Marie-Louise is one of 10 people profiled in a new book about “the people of the rivers,” entitled Cens de rivières. The book, written by La Presse journalist André Noël, started off as a series of feature articles about 10 rivers and the people who make their lives on and around them. Nine of the rivers are in Quebec and one, the Narmada River, is in India. Noël turned the series into a book on the advice of Quebec ecologist and publisher Serge Mongeau.
Mongeau also wrote the book’s preface, where he sets out the book’s environmental tone. “The rivers are the most precious part of our heritage. We are however in the process of wasting it forever. As long as we continue to see the rivers, the forests and the land as ‘riches’ to exploit, we will aggravate the situation,” he writes. “It is high time that we wake up and act.”
Noël’s book draws vivid portraits of the people he meets, and mixes in acute analysis of how these people’s lives are threatened by pollution and profit-oriented development.
Marie-Louise Fontaine’s story is one of the most interesting. Her river, the Moisie, is the only one of the 10 which hasn’t already been altered by hydro-development. There’s a lot at stake in her struggle. Hydro’s proposed SM-3 project will do massive damage to the delicate environment which is home to the plants she uses for her internationally renowned medicines.
Noël tells of how a Boston millionaire came to Marie-Louise for treatment on his leg. Doctors said it would have to be amputated because of infection. For two months, Marie-Louise nursed the man with plants from the banks of the Moisie. The leg was saved. But Marie-Louise would take no money in return. She also cured a six-year-old boy of asthma after a hospital in Sept-Iles was unable to help. She has cured excema, insomnia and nervous depression.
But all this is now threatened. Already, the encroachment of outside society has put a strain on the Innu way of life. The government restricts their salmon-fishing to a four-kilometre stretch of the 400-km-long Moisie, and they are limited to catching 900 salmon a year. A nearby private fishing club for rich Americans and Canadians has a quota of 4,000 salmon per year.
Problems are similar for the other rivers Noël visited. Quebec’s most polluted river is the Yamaska, which flows into the St-Lawrence just south of Three-Rivers.
Enormous quantities of herbicides seep into the Yamaska as it runs through the most intensely used farmland in Quebec.
A large number of the 220,000 people who live in the Yamaska basin drink their water straight out of the river without treatment.
Noël says that a $4-billion program to clean up Quebec’s river system started 20 years ago has hardly made a dent in the pollution. That’s because the program doesn’t get at the root of the problem, which Noël says is wanton development. This is the same province that has one of the least amounts of parkland of any area in the industrial world. About 0.3 percent of Quebec’s territory is protected in parks, compared to 8 percent in Ontario.
Reckless developers and indifferent politicians have turned much of the St-Maurice River into a lifeless pool of cancer-causing chemicals. The most electrified river in Canada, the St-Maurice has been nearly killed by hydro-dams, rusting pulp-and-paper mills, aluminum smelters and chemical plants. Some of these facilities pump dioxins and furan directly into the river—the most deadly chemicals made by humans, next to radioactive waste.
The pollution is having serious effects on the health of people living near the river. Health and Welfare Canada reported in 1984 that women in the St-Maurice basin have a 46-per-cent higher rate of mortality than the Canadian average, giving the women of this area the highest death rate in the country. The men’s rate is 24 per cent higher than Canada’s average.
Noël shows parallels between the destruction of Quebec rivers and plans in India to build a 1,400-megawatt hydro-project on the Narmada River that would displace 100,000 people. This project, now under construction, is financed by the World Bank. One of the bank’s members is Canada. Opposition to the project is high.
The Indian government has arrested and beated hundreds of the project’s opponents, and even killing one dam opponent.
“Here we have all we need. We cultivate just what we need,” says Biza Vasawa, an anti-dam activist. “When we are missing something, we go look for it in the jungle. We help each other in this village. Why would we leave?”
One unfortunate thing about Noël’s book is that he doesn’t visit any rivers in Quebec’s North. This is very odd considering the incredible devastation caused by hydro-developments to the La Grande, the Eastmain, the Caniapiscau and other northern rivers. The La Grande River is not only bigger than any of the rivers Noël does visit, it’s also where the biggest hydro-dam in the world was built. But Noël ignores this river except fora few passing remarks. It’s as if someone wrote a book about Meech Lake and didn’t mention Elijah Harper.
The Crees do come up indirectly in Noël’s chapter on the Ottawa River. He describes the crazed plan of some developers to turn James Bay into a fresh water sea separated from Hudson Bay by dikes. Known as the “Grand Canal project,” the idea is to divert massive amounts of water from James Bay through an aqueduct to the Ottawa River, and from there to Lake Superior. The water would be used to irrigate the U.S. Mid-West. The plan was cooked up over 20 years ago by U.S. engineering giant Bechtel Corporation and Quebec’s SNC-Lavalin. It has supporters in high circles, including Ontario Hydro President Maurice Strong.
Sure, this project is bad news for the Ottawa River. But won’t the impacts go far, far beyond this one river? Imagine the effects on James Bay! But, again, Noël doesn’t get into this.
Why? Noël appears to believe the Crees get too much publicity. At one point, he talks about Hydro-Quebec’s plan to build two large dams on the St-Maurice River, and makes this comment: “There are no Crees or Montagnais here, so the projects don’t make a lot of noise.”
Noël appears to be hostile to the Inuit as well. He takes them to task for supposedly imperilling the beluga whale. He quotes one conservationist saying: “The Inuit pretend that they have traditional hunting rights. I agree, but to me traditional hunting is done in a kayak with a harpoon, not a ski-doo and a .303.” His argument seems to be that the Inuit are as bad for the belugas as the hundreds of factories belching dioxins into the St-Lawrence—which is crazy.
Overall, Noël’s book is a heart-felt tribute to rivers and a call for people to come to the rivers’ defense. But Noël forgets that development has hurt First Nations peoples (and their rivers) more than anyone else. He also doesn’t give due credit to aboriginal peoples for defending rivers long before environmentalism became fashionable.
How is that different from the attitude of the developers?