Crees have won a victory against Hydro-Quebec in the Supreme Court. The court decided unanimously on Feb. 24 that there must be a federal environmental review of all future Hydro-Quebec dam-construction projects that are necessary to fulfil contracts to export electricity to the U.S.

“This will give us a little time to enjoy the present peace,” said Deputy Grand Chief Kenny Blacksmith. “The Whapmagoostui people will really have a chance to stick out their thoughts on the social impacts [of the proposed Great Whale project]. We all learned from James Bay I. We certainly don’t want to go through another phase with Great Whale.”

The Supreme Court ruled that the National Energy Board (NEB) has the power to impose environmental conditions on Hydro-Quebec export contracts. The case has been before the courts since 1990, when the NEB ruled that Great Whale and other new energy projects require an environmental review if the project is linked to an export contract. Hydro appealed that ruling even though the same ruling granted Hydro-Quebec seven licenses to export energy to Vermont and New York State.

Luis Eguren, coordinator of the Grand Council’s campaign against Great Whale, said the Supreme Court ailing is important because it establishes that Ottawa has jurisdiction over future Hydro-Quebec projects. Eguren also said the court avoided dealing with one key issue before it: Whether the Crees lost their aboriginal rights in the James Bay Agreement of 1975. By avoiding the issue, the ruling implicitly challenges the federal position that the James Bay Agreement did in fact take away Crees’ aboriginal rights.

Hydro-Quebec is downplaying the Supreme Court decision. Jean Bertrand, a lawyer for the utility, told The Nation the Great Whale project won’t be affected because it is already undergoing five environmental-review processes. He said the decision also will not apply to the 820-megawatt Sainte-Marguerite project, which has already undergone a provincial environmental review. This review recommended last June that the proposed project shouldn’t be built and that Hydro-Quebec should go back to the drawing board to design a less destructive project. But that didn’t stop Premier Johnson from okaying SM-3 last week. Construction will start this spring.

Eguren disagreed with Bertrand. He said it’s not clear whether the ruling means the SM-3 or Great Whale projects will now be subjected to new forms of environmental reviews. This ambiguity gives the Crees another avenue to challenge future projects in the courts, Eguren said.

Hydro-Quebec also announced last week that it again overestimated the growth in Quebec’s energy demand. The utility predicted that electricity sales would rise 5.7 percent last year, but in fact they rose only 3.8 percent. As a consequence, Hydro-Quebec is putting off the date for commissioning the SM-3 project by one year. The Eastmain-1 and Ashuapmushuan projects have also been put off for one to two years.

Work on Great Whale is still scheduled to start in 1998.