Written by Jesse Staniforth  Research by Eleanor Cowan

The last of six COMEX Review Committee meetings to discuss the impact of the Eastmain-1A Powerhouse and Rupert Diversion Project touched down in Waskaganish November 22, after previously visiting the five other communities most affected by those developments.

COMEX is a process for consulting with local Crees that was written into the certificate of authorization for the projects. The public hearings allow locals to express their views about the environmental and social impacts of the changes to traditional Cree waterways. Those employed by Hydro-Québec and the Société d’énergie de la Baie-James were present to respond to questions, and by all accounts, the discussion was lively in most every community.

In Wemindji, there was excited talk about the disappearing sturgeon in the area below the diversion. Given that the fish had previously fed generations of local people, the questions were heated. In particular, Rocky Georgekish and Ernest Tomatuk demanded to know what had happened to the sturgeon populations that had been relied upon to provide future nourishment for Waskaganish children.

Brian Craik, of the Grand Council of the Crees and a member of the COMEX board, later explained, “There are sturgeon in the Opinaca reservoir – quite a number of them, and they’re quite flourishing. Hydro-Québec has had some hand in doing that. They’ve put sturgeon fingerlings into the reservoir. South of the diversion point, the river has sturgeon in it, but they don’t seem to be reproducing. They seem to be landlocked sturgeon that will probably die out over the next couple of years.”

At the same time, Tomatuk complained that the high-tension wires strung through the region by Hydro-Québec were disrupting the hunting, leaving ptarmigan, beaver and rabbit uneasy and unwilling to come out to where they could be hunted.

Hydro-Québec representative Céline Belzile claimed that the high-tension wires should have no such effect. However, she admitted that the sturgeon decline was the focus of a study that would not be completed until after Christmas.

These complaints reflected those raised in the previous stops on the COMEX tour of public hearings. Notably, in Eastmain, Marjorie Weapinacappo saw the changes related to Eastmain-1 and Eastmain-1A as part of a history of decline that went back to the initial James Bay hydroelectric project in 1975.

“They say [the water is] not affected,” she said in an interview. “To us, we’re the ones who are presently living on the site of the dam. It’s different where it’s flooded now. Living where it’s more dry, it’s gone forever. We can no longer get our drinking water from the river since 1975, and it’s getting worse since EM-1 and EM-1A. We no longer use our river as we did before. Even the floatplanes that people used to go in the bush, we have to go up to kilometre 372 for them to go to their traplines by plane. The river has a lot of sandbars. The colour of the water is not as clear as it was, because of the decrease of the flow.”

Interviewed after the end of the COMEX hearings, Craik argued that the water that comes out of taps in Eastmain is drinkable, even if it doesn’t taste very good.

“Every community has a water-treatment plant, but as a result, a lot of the water has a chlorine taste,” Craik explained. “The only way to get that out is to put carbon filters on the houses for drinking water. Many times I’ve had tea made with clear river water. It tastes great. But you also run the risk, when you get your own water, of contaminating your water. Basically that’s what happened to communities in the past. In the early 1980s, they had gastroenteritis, especially in the communities with no infrastructure. If you walked down to the river in Waskaganish in 1980, you ran the risk of contaminating the water you drew out of the river.”

Whether or not the water is technically safe to drink, Weapinacappo doesn’t trust it.

“They treated the water, but it’s different now,” she said. “All the water that’s been treated, our pots and pans turn black. Before they were always clean because we had clear water. That was before 1975, before the river was dammed. They say it’s not going to affect that much, but looking at it now, we have to go to [kilometre] 381 to get our drinking water, because over there the water’s more usable, for tea and cooking too. If we use the water from the tap here, the water turns black when it’s boiled.”

Because she’s also on the Trappers’ Committee, Weapinacappo was worried about the lack of funding to support initiatives that would give work to tallymen.

“The first time the [James Bay and Northern Quebec] Agreement was signed,” said Weapinacappo, “we had funding that was given to the tallymen to do a project like ski-doo trails – for one year. When we did that, it says there $200 per day for the tallymen – but that thing is demolished. After the Paix des Braves, it’s no longer like that. They’re decreasing the funding that’s there for people to get something out of the work that’s going on. They make changes without consulting the people. We have 15 traplines for Eastmain. The ones along the coast, they made proposals to do slashing or cutting for the spring camps. They wanted to make flyaways for the geese. The last two years these proposals have been rejected. They say the ones along the coast aren’t affected, so they’re not entitled to get that funding. But the damage is also along the coastal communities – the coastal traplines. They’re the ones who are refused, who no longer have the right to hunt.”

In Chisasibi, meanwhile, the concerns were different. One was that Hydro-Québec members did not stay in the community, but rather at the LG-1 installation – a choice of accommodation some in Chisasibi felt was insulting. As well, there were significant complaints about the depletion of the eelgrass along the James Bay coastline and in other areas. According to George Lameboy, the eelgrass attracted geese and other kinds of migratory waterfowl to the area, yet since the Eastmain projects have begun operations, reducing the salinity in the water, the eelgrass has begun to die out, and the geese have stopped coming.

“It’s pretty simple,” said Lameboy. “What happens is, eelgrass gone, geese gone, Crees gone.”

Lameboy cited Hydro-Québec’s duty to monitor the eelgrass beds, a job he feels they’ve failed to do properly. Armed with an impressive collection of statistics, Lameboy builds his case carefully, noting that the number of geese harvested in Chisasibi (then Fort George) in 1972 represented nearly half of all geese hunted in Eeyou Istchee, and pointing out that the geese harvested in Chisasibi, Wemindji (then Paint Hills), and Eastmain that year represented as many pounds of food to those communities as all other edible food combined.

It is the decline in eelgrass, Lameboy believes, that has led to the decline in the geese.

“When these people turn around and say Canada geese do not feed on eelgrass,” he said, “we take this matter very seriously. When Hydro-Québec says [the eelgrass decline is due to] wasting disease, we scratched our head and went back to the old folk. We asked them if they remember their father talking about eelgrass disappearing in the 1930s and 1940s. Up till now, we have no memory of that among the Crees. We have stories and accounts about how the Crees used to snare migratory birds before they had firearms, but we have no stories of eelgrass disappearing. We would have noticed, because the migratory birds would have disappeared.”

Lameboy continued, “There is quite an amount of research available that says low-salinity and wasting disease don’t go hand in hand. The other part Hydro-Québec has been saying is global warming. But it has to be a slow process – why would it suddenly attack eelgrass beds when the hydro project is in place. There’s eelgrass beds north and south of Chisasibi – they seem to be doing fine. Does the sun somehow mysteriously shine only on the Chisasibi coastline?”

Few in the crowd at the Chisasibi hearing seemed to be comfortable with Hydro-Québec’s estimation that geese do not eat eelgrass – based on research by a non-Cree scientist from the south who did not hunt geese and had not apparently spent the kind of committed time with the birds as do Cree hunters.

Craik was shocked. “When I was at the hearings in Chisasibi, I asked them to raise their hands if they thought geese ate eelgrass. I’ve seen it myself, where the geese are eating the grass that’s right by there in the water. Do they only rely on eelgrass? They probably rely on other things, not just eelgrass. But I believe that they eat eelgrass. Somebody who comes in and says they don’t eat eelgrass, I’m surprised. I don’t think that the people are lying when they say they’ve seen it. One of the things I learned is people who live on the land have fantastically detailed knowledge of that land and the resources on it. Any company like Hydro-Québec coming in and making big changes like they’ve made is going to run into the fact that people are very observant.”

At the bottom of every concern about the rivers affected by hydroelectric installations, there is the worry that these changes will affect the traditional course of Cree life as it has been lived.

“One time [an Elder] said, ‘There’s geese in Ottawa’,” said Lameboy. “‘Why don’t we go hunting in Ottawa?’ Are we supposed to pass on the traditional knowledge of hunting in downtown Ottawa? When you’re passing on that knowledge, like how to drive in high seas with an outboard motor, how to read the clouds, the tides, the waves? That information cannot be passed down to the next generation in downtown Ottawa. It’s nice to go hunting in a farmer’s field, but you’ll never be a skilled driver of an outboard motor. You’ll never have the skill to survive out on the bay.”

Craik said, “Over the next 100 years – maybe forever – people will be raising issues, if people continue to use the river and consider it their river. If they’re considering these things as theirs, continuing with whatever they devise as the traditional way of life – which didn’t used to include snowmobiles, outboard motors, generators, pick-up trucks, even metal – that’s a good thing. Over the years, the Crees have been very good at creating and re-creating what’s called the Cree Way of Life. I expect they’ll doing that for foreseeable future.”

But Weapinacappo does not share Craik’s optimism, particularly if Hydro-Québec is involved.

“They say they’re listening, but it’s totally the opposite for us. What they’ve been promising to our parents and grandparents hasn’t turned out. I guess they know [what the problems are]. Every time they do their consultation, they’re always informed from community members. Nothing’s going to be okay, because the river has been damaged. We’re no longer getting the clear water we used to. What’s gone is gone. We’re the ones facing that every day. Hydro-Québec doesn’t seem to care. [They] only come in when they have their consultation. I guess we’ll have to adopt one of them for one year and have him live here so he can understand and believe what we’re talking about.”

Weapinacappo continued, “Every parent is responsible to take care of their children. That’s what the agreement represents: they adopted us, so they have to take care of us. They damaged our river and they make profit off that river every day, but they keep saying there’s no funding.”

Reached in Montreal, representatives for Hydro-Québec were unwilling to respond to the issues in this story in detail.

Belzile, who was present for the COMEX hearings, said, “At this moment I can’t comment, because it’s the responsibility of COMEX to respond to these complaints. Hydro-Québec was asked to be there and answer questions as needed, but it’s their consultation. I don’t know how they will respond.”

Gary Sutherland, a media-relations specialist for Hydro-Québec, added, “Out of respect for COMEX, which is still finishing its report on the consultations, Hydro-Québec will not be commenting on specific issues. However, it is important to highlight that Hydro-Québec will continue to be present in the region to ensure the environmental follow-up studies on the Eastmain-1A/Sarcelle projects until 2023, and will continue to participate with Cree representatives in the joint committees that are associated with that project.”