NEW YORK—Jacques Guevremont looked sad on the night he lost his big prize.
It was evening rush hour, Feb. 17, 1 992. Guevremont, Hydro-Quebec’s representative to the United States, stood on the corner of Park Avenue South in a sea of yellow cabs, waving his arm. Taxis whizzed by, ignoring him. Two hours earlier, the New York Power Authority had cancelled a 20-year contract to buy 1,000 megawatts of power from Hydro-Quebec.
by Peter Kuitenbrouwer
The Nation’s U.S. correspondent
Crees had spent two years and lots of money on a huge media campaign in the United States to stop the deal, saying it would require construction of the Great Whale project, which would destroy their land. They enlisted pop stars like Jackson Browne, James Taylor and Bruce Cockburn for a Ban The Dam Jam in Manhattan. “Stop James Bay II” stencils were a common site on Manhattan sidewalks. Three months after the concert, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo pulled the plug.
The agreement, worth $13 billion, had been the crowning achievement of Guevremont’s 35-year career with the utility. A month before the cancellation, Guevremont had moved to New York to defend Hydro-Quebec. But he was too late. No deal. Too pricey, Cuomo said, sidestepping the environmental issues.
When he heard the news, Guevremont put on his cap and coat and left his office in the headquarters of Burson Marstellar, the public-relations giant that Hydro hired to rebuild its reputation.
I remember how lost and lonely Guevremont seemed to me then, the lone Quebecois on the New York street. I had run to his office when I heard the contract fell through, and we almost bumped into each other on the avenue. Then a cab stopped.
Guevremont invited me in and as we rode uptown he spit out angry words, calling Cuomo’s decision wrong and shortsighted.
“That was a great deal,” he said. “They’ll be sorry they cancelled it.”
After that night the electricity story fizzled. I went on to other things. Every once in a while I called Guevremont’s office in New York, expecting them to say, “Oh, he went back to Canada.”
But he stayed. And he fought. Every six months or so I met up with him for lunch, and he talked of his campaign crisscrossing the northeastern United States, defending Hydro-Quebec’s reputation to anyone who would listen. Now, two years later, Guevremont claims victory.
Hydro-Quebec, he says, has won the public-relations war and erased the U.S. perception that it is the villain in northern Quebec.
“When I first arrived there were lots of positive articles about the Cree in the media here—now I don’t see very many,” Guevremont said recently, lunching at a busy Italian restaurant near his office. “Now when the Cree come down to speak, they don’t get very many people in the audiences. ”
This result is satisfactory to Guevremont. He believes in what Hydro-Quebec is doing in the North. He does not believe in what the Cree, and lobbyists hired by the Cree, are doing in the South.
Guevremont sees the debate over hydro-development in northern Quebec as a “tiraillement” (struggle) between the Cree elders, who want to live from what they trap, hunt and fish, and the youth, who have grown up with the luxuries of 20th- century North American culture and do not want to turn the clock back.
His own upbringing helps him understand, he says. Guevremont grew up in Smooth Rock Falls, near Kapuskasing, Ont. His father worked for the Abitibi Paper mill and trapped to make ends meet, disappearing into the snowy woods to emerge a month later with the pelts of beaver, mink, fox, otter.
“My mother didn’t have me in a sleigh or something, but we didn’t have an internal toilet or running water. It was very rudimentary. There’s something romantic in it,” Guevremont said. “But I understand the Cree kid who wants a television.”
“The Cree elders lived a very rough life, no hospital near or anything… I lived that. To return back to the old days, with no running water, no electricity—I don’t think the young Cree want that. The elders say, ‘Weren’t we better off when we trapped on the land?”‘
Guevremont has spent the past two years crisscrossing the northeastern United States and meeting with every newspaper editorial board that will have him. He tells of the wondrous wealth his company has brought to the North.
“Look at Great Whale,” he says. “Hydro-Quebec is not there yet, but the Cree live in modern houses, they have TV sets, they use their VCRs a lot, they have schools, modern transportation.”
“What does Hydro-Quebec bring? They cannot support that lifestyle on hunting, and everybody knows it,” he says.
“They want jobs. We need to find ways to develop them in business, in culture, and that can’t be done without money. If there is no economic development in the territories [his word for James Bay] then the people in the South will have to pay for the Crees’ development with their taxes.”
And so develop we must, says Guevremont. And now Guevremont’s office in the Burson Marstellar building is a mess of cardboard boxes: He is preparing to go home. His job is complete, just about.
But not without a few parting shots at the Crees. “The environmentalists told Gov. Cuomo—cancel the contract and Great Whale won’t happen. That’s a grotesque lie, supported by the Cree and distributed by the people they pay. Time has proven me right. We lost the contract and we’re building Great Whale anyway, if we’re authorized.”
“That’s the contrast between the Cree and the Inuit. The Inuit don’t aggressively attack Hydro-Quebec. They use their money to promote their society instead of to denigrate other cultures.”
Looking back on the Cree vs. Hydro public-relations battle, Guevremont muses, “They [the Crees) started spending money here two years before us. Then we came here, because the whole thing had just gotten out of hand. We were a couple of years late but I think we’ve won back the terrain.”