The Sanikiluaq Inuit of the Belcher Islands are trying to get their voices heard in hearings into the proposed Great Whale River Project. At the moment they have no official representation at the hearings despite the serious impacts of Great Whale and other hydro-projects on their way of life.
“It is not just Great Whale but all the dams around the bays. We have a reasonable idea of possible impacts inland. But what the Hydro-Quebec study and other studies are totally lacking in are the possible effects on the offshore marine environment. There’s a whole range of concerns there and there has been very little attention given to it up to now,” said Brian Fleming, one of the environmental officials of the Sanikiluaq Inuit.
“If further hydroelectric development is going to proceed, the community wants some pretty straight-forward honest answers to the questions they are raising in terms of the reversals of the fresh water flow, concentrations of it, diversions, nutrient flow changes and so on.”
Five separate committees are conducting hearings into the proposed Great Whale hydroelectric project. The Crees have representation on two of them and the Inuit of Quebec have representation on two more. The fifth committee is the Federal Environmental Assessment Review Office (FEARO) committee. FEARO guidelines say there must be someone local present to hear testimony involving social and economic impacts. But presently, this committee has no natives sitting on it.
FEARO is the committee which the Sanikiluaq people have asked to be included on. Officially, the Belcher Islands are part of the Northwest Territories. The NWT government has supported their request for representation on FEARO. Discussions are currently going on.
So far, the Belcher Islands people don’t feel like the environmental committees have given their concerns a fair hearing. During a community environmental hearing in Sanikiluaq, the chair of one of the review committees, Paul Lacoste, cut off testimony to fly out because of a storm warning. The Inuit never got to give full testimony. “There were several people lined up at the microphone when they brought an abrupt end to the public meeting and started packing up,” says Fleming. “The community was pretty outraged by it.”
This isn’t the only time or place that Paul Lacoste has shown insensitivity towards native people. When public hearings were conducted in the community of Great Whale/Whapmagoostui/Kuujjuarapik/Grande Baleine (all the same place), the native residents were allowed to speak in their own language—either Cree or Inuit. Witnesses remember that when testimony was being given in Cree or Inuit, Lacoste was in the habit of removing his translator earphones and staring straight ahead blankly.
Whapmagoostui Chief Matthew Mukash said he and his community are very much in support of the Sanikiluaq people’s fight for representation. “Their hunting and harvesting territories would be affected by the proposed Great Whale River Project and they are quite knowledgeable of the ecosystem that the project is affecting. We support them fully,” he told The Nation. “We also recognize that there hasn’t been a thorough examination of the effects on the marine life and environment. Hydro-Quebec hasn’t really looked at these types of impacts from the La Grande complex.”