November 18 was a day of jubilation in James Bay as the news spread that Premier Jacques Parizeau had indefinitely postponed the Great Whale River Project.
Some couldn’t believe their ears. One Whapmagoostui Cree who fought the project for the band stood holding the phone for two minutes in silence when he heard the news, then said, “This must be some cruel joke.”
A feast was planned in Whapmagoostui. Brian Craik, the Grand Council’s federal relations director, said he was flying so high he had to be scraped off the ceiling.
“It will take time to sink in. It’s hard to believe,” said Robbie Dick, who fought the project for several years as Chief of Whapmagoostui.
“The people have accomplished a great task. With this project, we used our own beliefs, our own way of looking at the Earth and the environment. We followed the direction of our Elders and we have come to this point where we have succeeded to a degree. This is how strong it is when we follow our traditions,” he said.
Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come called Parizeau’s announcement a “courageous” decision. “This generation of Crees and this generation of Quebecers has said no to mega-projects. It was a great joy to know we were right,” he said.
The Grand Chief said the postponement will give Crees precious time to think about other issues. “With Great Whale out of the way, it allows time for the land to heal, time for the Cree people to adapt to the changes that happened after the first project.”
But he warned that it’s still unclear whether Great Whale is completely off the table, or whether this is just a temporary postponement of five or 10 years.
The Grand Chief called on Parizeau to stop the ongoing environmental review process of Great Whale. If that process of hearings continues, Hydro-Quebec could still secure all the permits it needs to go ahead with construction. Then the utility could just wait a few years until the political situation is more favourable and start construction with little notice, permits already in hand.
That scenario was given added life by the comments of Parizeau aide Hubert Thibault, just hours after the Premier’s pronouncement on Friday. “We are giving Hydro-Quebec no instructions to stop their preparation of the project,” Thibault said.
“Parizeau said Great Whale is on ice. Ice can be thawed,” commented Grand Chief Coon Come.
That was a concern also raised by Kuujjuarapik Mayor Anthony Ittoshat. “My first reaction was that we went through this before in the late 1970s. We’re going through the same thing again. It’s just a question of how long we’re going to wait,” he said.
“The way Parizeau put it was we’re not going to scrap the project forever.”
Ittoshat said Parizeau may have postponed the $13-billion mega-project because of a report released earlier on the day of Nov. 18 that slammed the project. In their report, four federal and provincial committees studying Great Whale issued devastating criticisms of a $256-million environmental review conducted by Hydro-Quebec. The committees said the review was grossly inadequate and recommended over 300 revisions.
Hydro-Quebec issued a press release the following Monday, Nov. 21, saying it will have to find other ways of meeting its projections of energy demand. The utility mentions the Ste-Marguerite hydroproject, already under construction, and the Eastmain project, for which Hydro says it already has the required authorization.
Luis Eguren, coordinator of the Cree anti-Great Whale campaign in Montreal, said Parizeau’s announcement came as a big surprise to most observers. “No one at Hydro knew. Parizeau caught everybody with their pants down.”
Indeed, when we spoke to a Hydro PR person just an hour after Parizeau’s announcement, she seemed grim and doggedly stood by the utility’s work to date on the Great Whale project. “We’ve always felt our environmental impact study was of high quality,” said Hydro spokeswoman Helen Mayer.
Eguren added the sovereigntist government was hoping that by postponing Great Whale it could score a PR victory against the Crees. “Parizeau really needs to shut up Matthew. Matthew is killing him on the international front. He needs to get Matthew out from between his legs.”
Oddly enough, Parizeau’s announcement came just hours after Grand Chief Coon Come spoke again in Washington, D.C. about Cree rights. The Cree leader chided Quebec separatists for their “ethnic nationalism” and criticized the PQ government’s support for the extinguishment policy, which he described as “racist” and “colonialist.”