When two boats were spotted in the Hudson River by a roving news helicopter, little did the reporter on the story realize that the environmental movement was about to change.
It wasn’t until later in the day, Earth Day April 22, 1990, that New Yorkers learned that 60 Cree and Inuit in a 24-foot craft named the Odeyak were at the end of a 1200-mile journey that began five weeks earlier on the Great Whale River on Hudson’s Bay.
“We wanted to bring attention to the Great Whale electric project and the deal Quebec was making with New York for energy,” said former Grand Chief Matthew Mukash, one of the Cree travelers on the journey.
“The deal would be taking place on Inuit and Cree treaty lands and we didn’t want the same thing to happening to our rivers after the first project.”
The final phase of the James Bay project, or the Great Whale hydroelectric project as it became known, was to begin in March 1989.
The $17 billion, 21-year deal with New York was considered by Quebec as one of the largest Hydro deals of its time.
“The impacts on the community would have been devastating if the project went ahead,” Mukash said.
The $13.7 billion 1972 James Bay project construction lasted 14 years and flooded 11,500 square kms of wilderness that was home to the Cree and Inuit.
Fort George at the mouth of La Grande River with a population of 2300 was uprooted and relocated upstream, and renamed Chisasibi.
The flooding has also created mercury contamination in fish, released from rotting vegetation in the reservoirs.
“We needed to do something and we decided to build the craft using a canoe and a kayak,” said Mukash, “and when it was ready we thought about airlifting it because the water then was frozen.”
The Odeyak was eventually transported from James Bay using a dogsled team and the craft touched water for the first time in the Ottawa River.
Relying on goodwill from people along the route, the group arrived in Montreal but had some difficulties with logistics.
Kenneth Deer, a member of the Kahnawake Canoe Club and a representative of the Mohawk Nation in Kahnawake, heard of the Odeyak and reached out and opened the community’s arms.
“We provided what we could,” said Deer. “Anything from blankets to clothes and foods, and the group also stayed at the longhouse.”
Deer also helped the Odeyak make connections along the Hudson. Deer later joined the escort canoe in Yonkers and was in the canoe when it launched with the Odeyak from under the George Washington Bridge.
“We paddled down the Hudson and landed at Battery Park where the media was waiting for the Odeyak,” he said.
“The voyage of the Odeyak was a tremendous media event. It was a very successful public relations event that boosted the plight of the Cree and Inuit over the Great Whale.”
The Odeyak landed at Battery Park in New York for Earth Day on April 23, 1990, carrying a simple message that Phase Two of the Great Whale hydroelectric project would cause irreparable damage to the natural economy while killing the way of life of the Cree and Inuit who depend on the land.
“The media ate it up,” said Deer.
When the group arrived in New York they were greeted as heroes, introduced to the large crowd in Times Square. The Odeyak itself was placed on stage in the middle of Times Square.
“They got great media coverage, and since New York is the centre of media, their message was carried everywhere.”
The New York Times, Time magazine and the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine ran stories denouncing the Great Whale Project and New York’s involvement.
So complete was the coverage that then Governor Mario Cuomo, who brokered the $17 billion deal with Quebec, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “This could become an election issue threatening my political career.”
Two years later Cuomo backed out of the state’s $17 billion contract with Hydro-Québec, a move similar to the state of Maine’s cancellation of a $4 billion deal with Quebec.
“One objective was to convince, or at least get Cuomo not to continue with the deal,” Mukash said.
Mukash met the governor face-to-face at a peaceful rally in New York later that evening. “He asked me if anyone really needed that energy and would people buy it, and I said, no they would not.”
The Odeyak group also brought international pressure on Quebec and New York and drew the support of Greenpeace, The Sierra Club and other activist groups.
The National Audubon Society sponsored a full-page ad in the New York Times that showed a photograph of a dead caribou in land flooded by Phase One of the project – to which Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa responded, “seven million Quebecers can’t be wrong” insulting the Cree and Inuit and drawing the attention of the Canadian and New York State governments.
New York’s need for power and Quebec’s hearty desire for economic development didn’t stop further attempts. In 1993, New York again began making plans to buy power from Hydro-Québec.
This time the Cree paddled their way through the U.S. and Canadian court system. In 1994, the Supreme Court of Canada required Hydro-Québec to submit to a stricter environmental impact review, telling Quebec it failed to provide a social assessment on the Cree and Inuit in the territory.
“Many people were surprised by our message, because not many people understood how damming rivers up north could affect their lives,” said Mukash.
But 20 years later, Quebec Premier Jean Charest said it’s full steam ahead, despite past failures and inconsistencies. His government’s intention is to begin planning $19 billion in energy projects that will add 3500 megawatts to Hydro-Québec’s grid by 2035.
“It is for our future and the future of our children,” he said.