One day I had a call from Eric Gagnon, who told me he was a president and founder of the Rupert’s River Revenence Coalition. Gagnon comes from Montreal and went north to work for the Cree School Board. He liked the region so well he decided to stay on in Chibougamau when his contract ran out Gagnon says he loves the Rupert’s and wants to save it’s untouched beauty.
The Nation : When did your organization start?
Eric Gagnon : It began in the summer of 1997 when friends of mine helped me to discover this magnificent river. It was love at first sight. I knew from that day the Rupert and I would be bound for life. My friends and I began to look closer at Hydro-Quebec’s intentions towards this river.
The announcement of the agreement in principal (AIP) with the Quebec Cree totally startled us. We were shocked, deeply disappointed and felt betrayed. I was so sure our Cree brothers would have held out longer ! With a sense of urgency we proceeded to set up this coalition. I am delighted to see how widespread and strong the national network of organisations is, associations and individuals who are committed to this river’s protection. We are currently looking for and getting lots of support from all across America from ecological groups, the ecotourism and leisure industry, the scientific community, the media, political parties, native organizations, etc.
You operate out of Chibougamau. What is your connection with the Rupert’s River?
During our short summers, I operate a small adventure tourism company featuring whitewater kayaking as a means to explore the region and transform oneself. The magic of the James Bay rivers does the rest. The Rupert River flows less than three hours from Chibougamau, that is almost in my backyard ! It is so close that half of the Cree communities are located farther from the Rupert than we are in Chibougamau. We also like to paddle the Broadback, Eastmain, and La Grande rivers.
Can Natives join your organisation ?
This is one of the best things that could happen to it ! And it is something we are openly looking for. In fact, flocks of Cree ancestors are, in spirit, registering by the day and are becoming, in their subtle way, important members of our organization. Their presence at my side, which I take time to invoke and acknowledge every day, gives me lots of energy, strength and peace of heart. They obviously, too. think that money is not an issue and cannot be eaten.
We are also very proud to feel that our work is already benefitting the little Crees to be bom in the next centuries. In r the last analysis, amusingly, our organisation is probably Creeer t than the Crees… Just joking ! Living Cnees are thus most welcome to join ; they sure will feel at home ! Some of them already did contact us. by the way.
Reverence Rupert has been identified at first as « an emergent, non-native organization » for the following reasons : 1) to clearly identify it as a third player, apart from the Government of Quebec and the GCC, in a deal that seemed to have forgotten the existence of other interests ; 2) for the population of Southern Quebec and the Government of Quebec to know that this was not « only Cree interference, as usual » and that Hydro-Quebec development policy in James Bay is not approved by all non-natives either ; 3) for the Cree leaders to know that non-natives can also stand up to defend the land.
The protection of the Rupert River is an issue for all humankind, as is the safekeeping of all natural marvels to be found on this planet. But those who intimately know the Rupert are privileged and sought-for members of such a coalition. The broader the representation of a coalition, the bigger its impact. Truly, by nature, Rupert River Reverence is above ethnic considerations. From our point of view, the real lyiyuuschii is in the heart.
How do you see present relations with the Crees and non-Natives in the area? How would you see them in the future?
Things could be a lot better in the non-native towns of Northern Quebec, in my opinion. Public organizations of both our populations are developing too independently, without much official cooperation. Funding programs mutually exclude each other’s clientele, based on ethnic identification. This hampers profitable co-development projects. Some exceptions are encouraging, but they are to be found in the private sector. The Fonds de solidarité Nord-du-Québec, for example, sets a promising standard with its Board balanced with Jamesians, Cree and Inuit representatives.
I used to be an active member of a non-profit organization called Intercultural Friendship Comittee, which was devoted to generating activities of all kinds between Jamesians from Chibougamau-Chapais and the surrounding Cree communities. After a few good years of great activities, each passing year saw less and less people participating, from both ethnic groups, as some political and industrial conflicts poisoned the collective mind. We finally had to put the organization to sleep, waiting for better days, much to our disappointment. – But I think we have reached the bottom of this low ebb. I know for sure that, should both cultures join forces and be fully supported by their political leaders and public organisations in the side-by-side development of James Bay, we will witness tremendous changes, sooner than you think. Like many Jamesians,
I experienced uplifting hours working, celebrating, spending leasure time, and talking with Crees – my vision of the future is to, by all means available, multiply and spread such opportunities across the whole territory. And to always turn down any manifestations of segregation I come to witness, on either side, from the top to the bottom of the scale of society.
What are some of your plans to save the Rupert’s River?
The first action, and by far the most important, is to support the Crees in making the Agreement more acceptable. In my opinion, the proposed deal is inhumane. The Crees should never sign a deal that requires them to squash fundamental values, history and, in the last analysis, their collective self-esteem and sense of pride. Such excruciating sacrifices shall never be part of any deal – in fact, such blackmail is a form of violence, and it must be contrary to the Charter of Freedom and Rights. This deal will be a good deal. The day it will prove WIN-WIN, without implying undue sacrifices from either side will be one we both recognize. The Government of Quebec is already not sacrificing anything, really, so why should the Crees ?
The Crees constitute the best defense against the destruction of the Rupert. Hydro-Quebec considers their support as a must. If the Crees were to authorize the diversion of the Rupert, we are engaging ourselves to a long, costly and painful process. We would then have to look at current means of saving this river : political lobbying, pressure from environmentalist groups, petitions, manifestations, and participating in environmental hearings. The Crees can, in one single move, do much more than this. This is why we felt so strongly in our determination to join them before anyone else, aiming at respectfully but seriously « whip up their pride and wake them to their senses », as only brothers can do sometimes, over a family issue.
Do you think you have rights to the Rupert’s River?
Of course not – we have no rights whatsoever with regards to this river, only duties. The first duty is reverence, the second is preservation and the third is promotion and sharing.
What about the employment opportunities for the area if the project goes through?
This one is easy to answer. First, Cree and Jamesians will quarrel over low key jobs. For a few years, they will cut wood, drive trucks and be involved in some construction work. Afterwards, as Hydro-Quebec has proven in the past in hydroelectric development projects in resource regions, we will watch specialized workers, living in southern cities, coming to the region to work on the high tech jobs, in and out every week or so. The low key jobs will have lasted 3-4 years, at most, and the devastation of the territory will last forever. Furthermore, if Hydro-Quebec and the Government of Quebec play their cards well, the Cree communities will find themselves more divided than ever and also more isolated than ever from the rest of the province. You can imagine what will happen next.
Promises of direct and indirect economic benefits related to hydro development are just a vast mirage (illusion). On the opposite, the history, the ecosystems, the ecotourism potential and the beauty of the Rupert are a reality. I do not know of any place in the world where hydroelectric development contributed to a sound, sustainable development of communities and their environment. A quick tour of the small, artificially maintained locality of Radisson will tell you all you need to know about supposed economic benefits.
The only things that run smoothly, once a dam or a reservoir are built, are the turbines…
What are your alternatives for building up the area?
As a project development consultant, I had the privilege to help a few Cree promoters to prepare business plans and feasibility studies leading to very original and promising projects. The ones I like most combine the best of what both nations can offer. As you understand, I am bound to professional confidentiality, but some of these projects are of public knowledge. Take for instance the whole new concept of James Bay Road and the specific multi-service facilities projects at KM 372 (Eastmain) and KM 257 (Waskaganish), to name only those.
And I have heard great ideas in Mistissini, Waswanipi and Oujé-Bougoumou.
There is also the development of ecotourism. Should the international tourism market know more about what is offered here, we would soon run out of guides, of hotels and time to host the tourists.
Consider also the potential for homeopathic remedies that the Crees know about. This is a vast untapped market. There are the Wellness journeys that we have heard about. I know many Quebecers who would pay to go on them and the European market would be huge if we all worked together to develop it for the good of the region. These are all good examples of joint, sustainable, sound avenues of development, adapted to local cultures and regional environment.
The threat that is facing the Rupert river is providing un unpreceded opportunity to join efforts in sound and sustainable avenues of development we could be so proud of.
Is there anything else you wish to say?
So many more things could be considered. The lucrative energy market, of which very few people knows who is pulling the strings, in whose or what interests…
The recent scientific discoveries about disastrous impacts caused by dams and reservoirs, thought of in the last century as a clean energy production source… Let us keep the highest perspective for the moment and avoid these not-so-cool details.
There are two orders of river protection pitches: the lower order and the higher order. Lower defense pitch is interesting and you probably know it already, for it is being used every time there is a river, a mountain, a valley, a lake, a community or a sea to save from disaster. It involves the necessary battles about numbers, economical considerations, environmental impact evaluations, cultural and anthropological aspects to take into consideration, technical and scientific givens, political questions, direct and indirect benefits to question. And, of course, we will have to fight on all these battlefronts, our weapons being studies, statistics, demonstrations, documentation, expert advices, projections, protests, petitions. You can easily imagine the amount of work needed here – with no guarantee of success.
The higher river defense pitch is much subtler, but definitely more potent. It involves the kind of speech that Natives usually understand more easily than anyone else. It calls for noble, fundamental values. Reverence for Nature and its plentiful graces. The intent of a Spirit behind all things. Preservation of collective memory, the ancestors’ memory, who wrote history on the banks of a river in which every meander, every rapid is witnessed and recorded as a piece of collective memory. The Rupert River, like every big virgin river (and very few are left) is a universe untopp itself, with a fragile balance. In no way should we destroy that which we cannot create or reproduce. This whole defense pitch has nothing to do with studies, figures and experts. It must appeal to the most noble part of our being, to those invisible and unmeasurable things which are probably more real than things to be found in the visible realm.
But the best pitch is still the one that is not necessary. The Cree Nation has the possibility to avoid all of this painful struggle. The Crees can, without much effort, prevent the devastation of the land, the negation of their past and their roots, by killing the project in the egg.
I truly wish the Rupert River Reverence to dissolve, as the threat disappears. Should the Cree majority fail us, we will be ready – our decision is already made. But to tell you the truth, I would rather invest my time and energies into sound and sustainable co-development…