Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has given the go-ahead to the controversial $4 billion EM I-A Rupert River Diversion hydroelectric project that would effectively see one of North America’s last great virgin rivers reduced to little more than a creek.

The announcement was made December 18, less than three weeks after the federal government was handed recommendations supporting the project by the Federal Review Panel. Earlier, the Cree-Quebec COMEX board had also decreed its support for the project.

“This project is important for First Nations, the province of Quebec and for Canada,” said Harper in a statement. “As our economy grows, so too must our supply of clean renewable energy.”

Consultations to weigh the social impacts in each community as well as in Montreal revealed deep concerns for the loss of the river and emotional speeches on both sides of the coin.

The project would add less than 900 megawatts to Hydro-Quebec’s already massive electricity supply of over 12,000 MW.

At its worst, the diversion would reduce the 600-kilo-metre river’s flow by 71 per cent.

The three Cree communities that will be the most affected by the diversion – Nemaska, Waskaganish and Chisasibi – recently held referendums to affirm their overwhelming opposition to the mega-project.

Chiefs Josie Jimiken, Robert Weistche and Abraham Rupert all strongly oppose the diversion, citing negative social impacts that the La Grande project has had on their peoples.

The loss of vegetation, the contamination of the waters, the animals disappearing from the moose yards and the birds changing their migratory patterns are all seen as detrimental to the Cree way of life.

They claim that when the 2002 Paix des Braves Agreement was signed, that a provision in it that stated any development would first have to get Cree consent and that the EM I-A project was not a part of it.

According to a recent Nation interview with Cree Grand Chief Matthew Mukash, consent was given to the project during the first referendum in late 2001. “Once consent is given to a project, it is assumed that the parties will accept the outcome of the impact assessment whether it favours the project or not,” said Mukash.

The chiefs are pushing an alternative energy source, wind power, which they think will fill the void. Hydro-Quebec has said that they would purchase some of the power if and when the wind farms get up and running, but they do not feel that wind power is a viable replacement for hydroelectric power.

The communities have been in negotiations with companies like Ventus Energy to produce their own wind farms. Chisasibi alone has come up with a plan that would produce 1,650 MW of electricity, almost double what the Rupert River diversion would produce and much less harmful to the environment, the people and the flora and fauna.

Construction on the EM I-A Rupert River Diversion is supposed to start this month.