The Route de Nord was a Godsend to many.
Benoit Bouchard, federal Minister of Transportation under the Brian Mulroney, got the feds to kick in 55 per cent of the funding to get this road built—a road Bouchard’s Lac St-Jean riding had apparently wanted for years. The road was especially sought by the local forestry industry.
It also came to pass that the feds weren’t as scrupulous when it came to an environment assessment study before handing out the cash.
The forestry operations foresaw the bonanza of easy access which the road would bring to new virgin territories. The sports hunters and fishermen saw virgin (at least to non-Crees) untouched sites opening up.
Cree Construction got a lucrative contract even as the majority of it was subcontracted to Beaver Asphalt and Paving. That benefitted the company’s owner, a top fund raiser for the Quebec Liberals.
The Crees from the coast and inland no longer had to go through Val d’Or or travel by plane to see each other. Everything seemed all right.
I hen a class action suit appeared and some people started looking at the Route du Nord differently. They began thinking that perhaps too many corners had been cut in making this road a reality.
Some provincial officials aren’t happy with actions or lack thereof taken in the name of building this road. The Environment Ministry authorized construction on the condition that the proponent of the project submit a plan on monitoring social and environmental impacts.
The proponent of a project is normally responsible for ensuring that environmental, safety and other standards are met. The monitoring plan was supposed to be submitted six months after construction began.
This wasn’t done because no one could agree on who was responsible. Transport Quebec said Cree Construction agreed to be the proponent. Cree Construction responded by saying the Quebec government is responsible for doing monitoring plans.
Raymond Houle, a researcher for the environment department, said there were big problems getting the monitoring plan from the beginning. The department asked Cree Construction as the proponent for a monitoring plan. But Cree Construction replied in a letter that this was Transport Quebec’s responsibility. Transport said no; Cree Construction is the proponent.
Houle told The Nation, “This is the first time we had a problem with the proponent so in this case we were patient. When we finally contacted the legal department to initiate proceedings against Cree Construction we were informed too much time had passed.”
The dispute dragged on and on over who was responsible, until a two-year time limit on legal proceedings expired. Now it’s too late for the government to take anyone to court over the monitoring plan.
But it’s not too late for legal action by Cree trappers affected by the road.
On Jan. 26, Nemaska tallyman Freddy Jolly filed an application with the Quebec Superior Court seeking permission to launch a class action suit on behalf of about 350 trappers affected by the road. Freddy also seeks over $48,000 in personal damages and interest from Cree Construction, the province and Ottawa.
It is conceivable that Freddy’s lawsuit could be broadened as new problems are uncovered with how the road was built.
Houle listed several problems with the construction. Gravel and river sites were not restored as required by Environment Quebec. The restoration was supposed to start when the road was finished in Nov. 1993. It didn’t. The time limit for court action on the restoration of these sites is Nov. 1995.
Houle also confirmed some gravel pits were built too close to waterways, also possibly in violation of the law. Some old Hydro-Quebec pits were reused and others exceeded permit limitations on how much gravel could be extracted.
One question is how much of a follow up was done to ensure proper restoration of the sites. The Chibougamau regional forestry bureau told The Nation it wasn’t their responsibility to monitor the impacts of the road after it was built. The regional wildlife office said the same thing.
Furthermore, culverts (large drainage pipes) were used where usually in the south you find a bridge. The Broadback River got a bridge made partly out of recycling materials left over from Hydro-Quebec’s construction days in the area. At least this was an improvement over the 28 or so culverts that were originally planned.
Studies of the road’s socio-economic impacts on trappers and on fish were never submitted to the government’s satisfaction. At one point, legal action was recommended against Cree Construction by the Comex Committee, an environment watchdog at the provincial level.
Steve Bearskin, president of Cree Construction, told The Nation he was not aware of any problems associated with the gravel or river sites. He did admit to a problem with not completing a study on fish impacts but nothing else.
He also rejected Environment Quebec’s assertion that Cree Construction didn’t monitor the road’s socio-economic impacts on trappers properly.
Bearskin seemed unaware that Environment Quebec had contemplated legal action against Cree Construction.
‘The Route du Nord from the start was done while ignoring trappers’ rights,” says Francois Robert, Freddy Jolly’s lawyer. “As a result it is now in court. Court proceedings were definitely considered as the last resort to resolve the trappers’ problems. Their rights under the James Bay Agreement were ignored all along by all the parties involved. The more we look into the Route du Nord, the more we are convinced the trappers have solid grounds in their class action.”