The first-ever joint hearings on a hydroelectric project kicked off in Mistissini March 15 with lively interventions from community members. The hearings on Hydro Quebec’s EM 1A and Rupert River Diversion projects mark the first time that the Federal Environmental Review Agency and COMEX has held a joint hearing on the same issue.

The project would submerge 188 square kilometres of land and change the course of a river that was a water highway not only for the Crees but for the fur trade. The Rupert River is the oldest Hudson Bay inland fur trade route. How highly valued it is by the Mistissini Crees would become evident during the three days of the hearings.

In his opening remarks, Comex Chairman Clement Tremblay said priority would be given to community residents. Tremblay said he wanted everyone to feel free to express themselves. Questions directed at the Proponent (Hydro-Quebec), however, would go through the review committees, said Bernard Forestell, chairman of the federal panel.

Hydro-Quebec seemed to start off on the wrong foot by promising to help trappers use the changed land more efficiently. One Mistissini resident sourly remarked that Hydro Quebec engineers must think they are better than Cree tallymen.

Jean Bonneau, Commercial Delegate for Hydro-Quebec, promised trappers that affected camps would be moved or rebuilt. He said Hydro would provide new navigation charts that would, for example, show safe snowmobile routes. In addition, boat-launching ramps and portages will be cleared.

Bonnie said the utility expects little effect on big game, such as moose and caribou, and they will create new hunting grounds and wetland areas. Hydro said the project will have minimal impacts on the fish population and new spawning grounds for sturgeon would be created and stocked.

Hydro-Quebec will also allow the federal authority to monitor whether or not they have lived up to environmental standards and said this was a project designed in partnership.

Bonneau pointed out that under Section 4.11 of the Paix des Braves, Cree consent was given to carry out the Eastmain-1A/Rupert Project. As a result of that, the Boumhounan Agreement was created to see this happen. Bonneau said $240 million in contracts were to be awarded to the Cree, special funds set aside for remedial works as well as jobs under the new relationship. The project would see 5,000 workers at its peak.

A reference was made to the Cree referendums, with Bonneau saying it resulted in a 70 per cent approval for signing the Agreement.

In return, Hydro would have its generating capacity increased by 893 additional megawatts of electricity and 8.5 terawattshours of energy output per year. This power would meet increasing electricity demands both within and outside of Quebec. Bonneau said hydroelectricity is clean, renewable energy produced at a low cost of 4.4 cents per kilowatt hour. The project is estimated to cost $4 billion.

An outfitter from Awashish Outfitting Camps, George Awashish, said he and his family business partners are very nervous about the project as they are now having a hard time selling the Rupert as a fishing destination. The only help they received from Hydro Quebec was a brochure and he asked for assistance to promote the Rupert as its reputation has been damaged.

“I’m trying to preserve this river. You’re trying to destroy this river,” Awashish said. The camp also asked for a fish study.

Hydro replied they have helped a lot and even went to an outdoors show with camp representatives. The utility also said they have no study for his area in their agenda as there are several rapids between the camp and the site where they will start building 1 10 kilometres upstream. Rapids are potential obstacles to fish migration, said a Hydro Quebec spokesman, adding that

the spawning and feeding grounds are local so the fish have no reason to travel.

Members of the Neeposh family then questioned Hydro Quebec on their use of traditional knowledge. They requested that a study of the fish be undertaken using their traditional knowledge of the area.

A study was completed by an environmental consultant firm, Genvier, that didn’t satisfy the Neeposh family. They chose the lake where the nets would be set up, “but they were not allowed to choose the sites where to put the nets,” said Jimmy Neeposh.

The nets were put in the same locations as the previous study. “We were trying to show where the fish, where it exists. And what kind of species, because we were told there was no fish in some areas where we knew there is fish,” said Neeposh. “We wanted to show them where the fish is at different times of the year in different lakes. Genvier says there is no speckle trout there; we responded that they did not find trout because they fished there at the wrong place and wrong time during both studies.”

Neeposh took issue with the Boumhounan Flash newsletter, which stated the studies found there was no impact on fish stocks because none were found, and that this finding was based on Cree traditional knowledge.

“The way our names are mentioned and the pictures make us look like we support the results and the information contained in the report. We do not agree with the results,” said Neeposh. “Traditional knowledge was not put into consideration at the very beginning of this study.”

Many Neeposh family members also talked, saying they were probably the most impacted family and had willingly given up their land for the benefit of all but had concerns about the project they wanted addressed. One of their requests was for an official written and recorded history by their father Tommy Neeposh on his vision and to share his knowledge. It would be done in Cree, English and French so his message would reach everyone who benefits from the development affecting his land.

Several other residents got up to talk about the project. Jason Coonishish was perhaps the most heated speaker. “This is a rape to our lands and rivers,” he said. “We knew to watch over our land and waters, because that’s our responsibility. You take care of the land, and it takes care of us.”

Larry Linton told the review board there was a commandment in the bible that says you should not covet what belongs to your neighbours. Linton said that is what has been happening to Aboriginal Peoples in North America for the past 300 years.

Mistissini Chief John Longchap asked that the community and Cree hunters are listened to. He also asked that the review committees ensure that individual communities such as Mistissini receive an “equitable proportion of the contracts which result from the construction, operation and maintenance of this hydro-electric project.”

Future hearings: Eastmain, April 4; Wemindji, April 11; Chibougamau, April 25; Montreal, May 1-4; Waskaganish, May 30; and Chisasibi, June 6. (The Nemaska hearing was held March 21, too late to be covered in this issue.)