After years of fighting against the infamous Mega-Corp Hydro-Quebec in the northeastern United States, I was about to finally visit the dams that I felt had damned my people. It is hard to approach this type of story without a bias or an opinion, so I didn’t even try.
I was about to tour what one of my Earth First! friends nicknamed, “The Evil Empire.”
As a Hydro-Quebec pamphlet entitled Everywhere you look, we are there for you! put it, the “irresistible attraction of the Middle North and the Abitibi-Temiscamingue” is the La Grande complex (“the BIG complex” in English). They also called the James Bay Territory “Radissonia.” Most people I know never called it this, but Crees never knew it was “Rupert’s Land” either, so what the hell.
Two tours were available to visitors, of the LG-1 and LG-2 sites. The Nation, consisting of Neil, a most excellent photographer and sometimes restaurant critic, Alex, ace reporter and laid back layout artist, and of course myself, sometimes dysfunctional writer and activist-turned-editor, decided that we’d tour the biggest, baddest dam ever to hit the Far, excuse me, Middle North.
After hitting the yellow brick road we were off to see the wonderful Wizard of Oz—well, actually that marvel of marvels, part of the wet techno-dream of Robert Bourassa, La Grande-2, the largest underground generating station in the world, according to HQ. Our guide of guides was a 14-year HQ public relations veteran named Leon-Marie Hachez.
Our first meeting with him had him perplexed and confused since we said we’d like to sample the HQ cafeteria at the end of the tour. We patiently explained to him that Neil was in the habit of reviewing the
Far or Middle North’s culinary delights. He was suspicious of us and our request right from the start. It must have been our red eyes, leftover souvenirs from the night/morn-ing before.
Before heading into the initial presentation theatre, the boys from The Nation loaded up on goodies from the HQ company store.
The presentation started with all the info we already knew. Soon we were crunching Cheezies (Alex), Pringle’s potato chips (Neil) and smoked almonds (me). After hearing how a dam works, how the La Grande complex supplies almost but not quite half the electricity needs of the province of Quebec and being bored half to death by the Mickey Mouse show, as well as being glared at and still hungry, we were taken to an official HQ tour van.
Leo was a real Sherlock Holmes. In the van, Leon-Marie (who we now called “Leo”) confessed to Alex that he was of mixed feelings about this tour. “You know, I have mixed feelings about this,” stated Leo, pointing to the other two boys from The Nation. When he was told that the Crees also have mixed feelings—about the dams—he said he felt we had printed factual errors. “Come on, you know you’re printing distortions in your magazine. Just between you and me,” said Leo in a confiding manner to Alex.
When asked to specify what possible distortions we printed, Leo commented on one of our articles where he didn’t like Matthew Coon Come winning a environmental award and talking about an area the size of France possibly being flooded. Leo stated that the La Grande complex didn’t flood an area this size. We explained that Matthew was talking about the whole James Bay project (including Great Whale and NBR) and that he said an area the size of France would be affected, not flooded. After that, Leo was silent for a change. The kid gloves had come off for the first but not the last time on this “unforgettable experience” that offered “a plunge into nature, a meeting with history” (quotes from HQ’s own literature).
Our first stop was a lookout tower and at the top I saw something remarkable. There was actually space left on the wood so we could cut in The Nation’s name. Yes, we were armed with a humongous 2″ blade on a multi-purpose jackknife. The Nation was not entering into the “bowels” of the Evil Empire helplessly. Oh yes, the view was nice, showing the dam in all its glory. The giant steps, one of the retaining dikes, the power lines, the gravel roads, the replanted trees, the trees that had always been there, the rocks, the water, but I go on and on needlessly, something like Hydro-Quebec on Cree land.
Next was the impressive retaining dyke, some 53 stories high or something like that. To my unpracticed eye, I felt it was closer to 55 stories personally, but I’ve been known to be occasionally wrong before. I asked about potential entry into a downhill skiing resort or bungee jumping. Leo said that many people had suggested the skiing but not the bungee (guess I am an uncommonly common sort of guy). His real interest, though, was getting some Cree outfitters interested in starting a hand-gliding tourist attraction using the retaining dyke.
‘Nuff said. Our next stop was to descend into the “bowels” of the dam itself after a trip to the Cree Memorial and a straight-on look at the giant steps. The giant steps are the spillway of LG-2, where each one is the approximate size of a football field. You could have some interesting play-offs there but for the fact that
they are made of stone. Perhaps with some astroturf and that famous Hydro-Quebec environmental enhancement, we could cut down on this game’s season considerably. I never did like football too much, but might be willing to watch six or so games simultaneously. Imagine the advertising dollars to be made! Another potential business idea allowing Hydro to diversify. If you think this is foolish, please remember the old wives’ caution about all your eggs in one basket.
The Cree Memorial used to just be a plate engraved in the memory of the Cree burial sites now underwater. Leo, bless his heart, expanded upon this and invited the Chisasibi Band Council to write a few words on Cree life and history. These would be seen by all the LG-2 visitors and would be subject to approval by the utility. Don’t worry, though, as HQ only saw fit to change a few words. One of the pictures on the memorial is of the Giant’s Stone. According to Cree legend, this stone fell from the sky killing an evil giant (some were good). Hydro-Quebec people pressed for the name of the giant but were given only the initials. The initials were HQ and aren’t in the text. Surprise, surprise. However, I do give Hydro credit for the idea to include at least a little of the Cree presence in their presentation and tour.
Somewhere during all this, a woman on the tour verbally slapped down poor Alex for his incessant burping. To tell the truth I, as a gentleman, was getting tired of it myself and applauded her actions wholeheartedly, as our guide seemed to consider burping quite normal.
Next, we descended 140 metres beneath the Mother Earth’s surface into what is known by Hydro-Quebec officials and workers as “the Cathedral.” The Cathedral has a ceiling 137.16 meters high (about the height of a 27.5-story building), and is about half-a-kilometre long.
With something this immense and impressive, it is no wonder some Hydro-Quebec employees went around the bend and joined the Temple of the Solar Sun, a religious cult that saw some of its members working for Hydro-Quebec arrested for possession of illegal weapons and silencers. I have to wonder if each of the 16 turbines were named as a different god. I would ask that any practicing members out there, still not identified, remember that the Bible says—not to idolize those things below the Earth’s surface. Look it up some time. You could say Hydro-Quebec’s Cathedral may have changed good Christians into pagans, but I wouldn’t because I don’t know what religion they were before their conversion.
In this, the “bowels” of the operation, as it were, there was a continuous hum and vibration. It was the 16 mighty generating monsters working to produce some of the almost-half-but-not-quite power needs of Quebec. All motorized vehicles (one does get tired walking around this gigantic complex) were electrical, since I guess they had power to spare and gas emissions would’ve posed additional problems in this technological marvel located in the Middle North (Far North if you’re from the U.S. where some of this power is sold). I wanted to try one of the vehicles out, but this was nixed by our guide who was still trying to understand just what The Nation was doing there. He kept his cool while I stole (actually borrowed) a worker’s jumpsuit, gloves and helmet to allow Neil some special photos.
At this point, Leo brought up another Nation sore point for him by attacking one of my articles concerning the 150 jobs guaranteed by Hydro-Quebec in the La Grande Agreement. He seemed to think that because the Crees asked for this clause, the Crees were somehow responsible for fulfilling it and Hydro-Quebec didn’t have any responsibility. He also used some of the arguments made in The Nation on why the utility was having problems meeting the employment target of 150 Cree jobs. Leo expanded on this theme many times when we didn’t reply to his allegations and arguments. I almost told him I didn’t work for the GCCQ and only reported these things, but settled for pretending that I didn’t know who had written the article. We were very non-confrontational for the most part.
Soon the good times of seeing the “surge room,” turbines and other “bowel” features came to an end. I was pleased to learn that electromagnetic fields weren’t of a nature to harm HQ employees. Indeed, Leo stated that, according to a study paid for by Hydro-Quebec among others, it was inconclusive that electromagnetic fields helped cause leukemia or other health problems. I guess this study goes right up there with the tobacco industry’s studies on how smoking may not cause certain health problems.
I have two other money-making schemes for Hydro-Quebec. (After all, as a company owned by all Quebecers, wouldn’t I want to see them make a profit?; last year’s was over $700 million.) It’s quite simple: Rent out “the Cathedral” as a movie set. Many of the scenes would be immensely successful as sci-fi or action shots.
Another potential use for the two “inland seas” created by Hydro-Quebec would be depth-charge testing. Not only would it kill all those mercury-laden fish, but it might get rid of some of the vegetation causing the problem. Maybe then we could put into effect Hydro-Quebec’s idea of sending fish down south as a source of fertilizer for farms.
On the way back, Leo pointed out the site where a monstrous cafeteria had once stood. He boasted that in its heyday it could serve 7,000 meals in 90 minutes. This was the most impressive undertaking by Hydro that I had heard that day. Imagine the catering potential of Hydro-Quebec.
They could feed the entire Inuit Nations of Northern Quebec at once. Yet another potential money-making idea for HQ is to take that technology and go to some of the starving nations around the world and charge the United Nations for that service. This would go far to improve their public relations image.
Speaking of food, we were starving as we hit the cafeteria. You’ll have to read Neil’s article (page 20), since I never steal another man’s bread and butter. Well, not lately anyhow. During the meal, I came across one familiar face from Mistissini. I was curious and asked him bluntly how it was working for The Evil Empire. He told me that while he would rather be in his own community, it beat living on welfare. He did contradict Leo’s claim that there are 30 Crees working for Hydro-Quebec, saying there are only 10 permanent jobs and about 12 temporary positions occupied by Crees.
As we left I looked back knowing this was a trip most Crees should take. It always helps to hear the other side of the argument and to see what’s been done. Though Leo and I would never agree, I can understand what he thought he was and is doing on Cree Territory.
After this trip I came away feeling that The Evil Empire, like Black Sabbath, isn’t so evil after all. In their own way, within the limits of EuroCanadian values, Hydro-Quebec has done great things.
Maybe they aren’t great things to the Crees, but we have to stop thinking of it as evil. It might help just to think of it as a self-centred, dysfunctional, spoiled brat that always expects to get its own way, but evil, I think not!
Leo’s last words were an invitation for more Crees to join the 10 to 15,000 people who take the HQ tour every year. Give him a call at 819-638-2456 and tell him Will sent you. I’m sure he’ll be pleased. P.S. The tour is FREE.