The only thing left was the funeral procession as politicians from Quebec, the Cree and other non-native James Bay communities congregated in a roomful of media types to witness the surreal scene of a river being executed.
After a 20-minute delay, the January I I Hydro-Quebec press conference in Montreal with Premier Jean Charest and Grand Chief Matthew Mukash effectively pronounced the death of the Rupert River. The only thing left to do was to implement the death sentence.
Construction began January 12 on the massive $5 billion project. The river’s flow will be reduced by 71 per cent in certain areas, rendering it almost irrelevant as one of the last great rivers in Canada.
In an ironic twist of fate, two of the three chiefs who voted in referenda in November to oppose the diversion, had recently lost loved ones and could not attend the signing.
The Fondation Rivière, Révérence Rupert and Sierra Club of Canada joined Chisasibi Chief Abraham Rupert in denouncing the project. They asked for a one-year moratorium on the project, so experts can be brought in to study other alternatives such as wind power.
“We sampled the soil that will be flooded and we found the mercury levels very high,” said Daniel Green of the Sierra Club. “The impacts of the Rupert diversion will be higher than the previous dam.”
Abraham Rupert said that the devastation of the diversion would lead to more social problems as well as troubles with the flora and fauna near his community.
“When you put vegetation under water you’re bound to have a reaction. It affects the water and us as Cree people,” he said.
“Eighty per cent of the river’s flow is going to come towards my community,” Rupert continued. “I only have two hours and 14 minutes to get my people to safety if anything happens. I don’t think that’s enough time.” When asked by the Nation what he had to say to the people of the three most affected communities – Nemaska, Waskaganish and Chisasibi – Matthew Mukash seemed to be holding onto a glimmer of hope.
“I’ve been mandated to talk to the people,’’ he said. “They’ve exposed their position to us and we’ll take a look at it.”
When asked if that was it, if the fight for the Rupert was over, Mukash said, “We’ll respect where the people want to go.”
The conference had the usual ramblings about how good the project is for the environment from Hydro President Thierry Vandal and Environment Minister Pierre Corbeil. For a little show, Indian Affairs Minister Geoff Kelley was thrown into the mix to demonstrate how the province really was getting along with the Cree – finally.
Mukash also stressed his mixed feelings about the signing. He brought to light the broken promises from 1975’s James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement and how the province signed a document assuring more money for policing and justice only yesterday in Wemindji, 31 years after it was promised to the Crees. He said it was peculiar that it only took five years from beginning to end to lose another river.
Premier Jean Charest assured the Crees and the media that things are working smoothly now and that the days of waiting that long to implement something are over.
He said that the intentions of the JBNQA were good, but weren’t always put into practice. “We are hereto work together, nation to nation to develop the Cree communities,” said Charest.