Nemaska, Chisasibi and Waskaganish have spoken with one voice in referenda held November 29 in the communities that will be most affected by the EM IA Rupert River Diversion. That Residents were asked, “Do you approve of the Rupert River Diversion project?” The combined vote result from the three communities was 1071 -217 – or 80 per cent – against the diversion.
“I feel good about the results and I’m glad the people came forward to express their view and their position on the proposed project,” said Nemaska Chief Josie Jimiken.
“During the public hearings, we didn’t make any interventions,” Jimiken continued. “We let the people speak for themselves. After hearing our members voice their opinions, views and concerns, we understood that nobody really was for the project. The majority of them did not want to see this project take place. So we went ahead and submitted to the panels our recommendation to reject the project. And we wanted to confirm that by holding a referendum in the communities.”
Waskaganish Chief Robert Weistche agreed. “The voice of the people has spoken loud and clear,” he told the Nation by phone.
“We need to get the Grand Chief on this and get him moving. We need to sit down with the [Indian Affairs and Environment] ministers and ask them if they’d be willing to consider alternatives to this project. I think the communities have spoken and spoken loudly. We believe we can offer alternatives that would create just as much employment if not more,” said Weistche.
Nemaska voters rejected the diversion in a proportion of 78.6 per cent. In Waskaganish, 73 per cent of voters said no, while Chisasibi rejected the diversion by a score of 91.5 per cent.
Grand Council Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff said he would work with the people to find a solution.
“When the decision was made, it wasn’t made by each community, it was made by the Grand Council,” he said. “However, we’ll have to take a serious look at the concerns that were raised through the referendums. Our relationship with Quebec is very good right now, so we’ll take the opportunity to speak to them about it.”
Iserhoff added that the referenda would be on the agenda at the Council Board meetings slated for December.
“The people who voted against the diversion obviously have concerns that must be addressed. We’ll have to go into serious discussions based on the results of the past week,” he said.
Waskaganish Chief Weistche was firm on what needs to be done. “One of the conditions of the Quebec government is the project has to be acceptable to the local communities. This project is not acceptable to the local populations in the north. We’re simply going to askthe Quebec government to consider withdrawing this project.”
Weistche said that, at the time of the 2002 signing of the Paix des Braves, people in his community kept asking if they signed away the river. Weistche would reply what that they approved was the research and environmental review into the feasibility of the diversion. Not the diversion itself, he said.
“The people were told that they would have a chance to say yes or no after the environmental review process and studies. So with these referenda, we gave them that chance. The question came from the people. It was passed at the general assembly this summer and it mandated the chief and council to follow up on that. And then we took it to the people and now they’ve decided,” said Weistche.
Weistche said technological alternatives to hydroelectricity now exist and should be explored. “We live in an age where technology is developing very fast,” he noted. “I don’t understand why Hydro-Quebec keeps insisting that their energy policy be geared toward big hydroelectric development projects. We have wind potential to generate 100,000 megawatts from wind. Why are we not going with alternatives that are less destructive to the environment? In the community of Waskaganish our whole lives are based around the river.”
Chisasibi Chief Bertie Wapachee, who voted against the diversion and is a proponent of wind power, was elated at the results.
“I’d rather see a beautiful river for the rest of my life and have my kids and grandchildren enjoy it as I did. There’s a better use for the river than to kill it and kill the history of it too. I hope the other side will have their doors open to discussions on finding a replacement to the diversion.”