The Whapmagoostui and Chisasibi band councils are quietly discussing a proposal to revive the Great Whale River hydro-electric project, The Nation has learned.

The idea is to divert the Great Whale into Hydro-Quebec’s existing La Grande dam complex — an idea first proposed by Hydro-Quebec in 1997.

But this time, there’s a twist. Crees themselves would eventually be 100-percent owners of the project.

The project isn’t being proposed by Hydro-Quebec, but rather by AMEC Inc., a large UK-based engineering firm with 50,000 employees in 40 countries.

AMEC quietly approached Steven Bearskin, president of the Cree Construction and Development Company, with the idea two years ago.

“It’s just an idea. It’s not official,” said David Masty, chief of Whapmagoostui. “It’s at the discussion stage. We haven’t taken a position on it as a community.”

So far, the discussions have included a meeting between AMEC and some community members in Whapmagoostui in September, and a meeting with the chief and council in Chisasibi in late fall.

Some of those involved in the discussions were surprised when asked about the project.

An engineer at AMEC insisted that The Nation must not publish a story because the situation is too “sensitive” at this point.

“We don’t want this to be public. I’d like to keep this confidential because nothing has been signed with the Crees,” said François Vézina, an engineer at AMEC’s Montreal office.

“If you print something, it won’t be good for us. These are sensitive issues,” he said.

Violet Pachanos, chief of Chisasibi, said the meetings were held simply to get more information “to tell people what is being contemplated.”

The next step is a joint Chisasibi-Whapmagoostui community meeting to discuss the project, she said.

Pachanos said she favours partnerships on development projects, along the lines proposed by Hydro-Quebec in 1997. “Yeah, I suppose that’s the way people have to look at things now. It could be economically viable for everybody.”

But the new project promises to be controversial. In July 1997, Whapmagoostui held a referendum on whether their river should be developed; 92 percent said no.

At the time, “We don’t want Masty, then-executive director of the band, was adamantly opposed to the project.

“This project will not be discussed by the Crees with Hydro-Quebec,” he told The Nation after the referendum.

“It’s better to attack the idea before it materializes any futher and much money is spent on it,” he said.

But now, Masty is refusing to take a position on the latest version of the project: “I prefer not to state my personal opinion.”

He added, “Certainly the proposed project would have less impact than we thought. But then again, in the referendum people said they were opposed to the project.”

Vézina, of AMEC, refused to provide any details about the project: “Once an agreement is signed, we will be pleased to speak with you.”

Cree officials also offered few details. They did say, however, that AMEC is proposing to design and arrange financing for the Great Whale diversion. The UK company would also get a share of the ownership and profits during the period of debt repayment.

Bearskin said he did not know how long that period would be. Much depends on the financing terms. He said there are “estimates” of how much profit would be generated, but wouldn’t give any details.

“Theoretically, it should be a profitable situation,” said Gordon Livingstone, Cree Construction’s vice-president of marketing and business development.

“Our job as an economic developer is to look at opportunities that come along,” he said.

One Cree source said the cost of the project is estimated at $350 million.

Under Hydro-Quebec’s 1997 plan, the Great Whale was to be diverted at its headwater, Lac Bienville.

The river’s flow would have been greatly reduced downstream. The water was to be diverted over 10 kilometres of canals into the existing La Grande complex, increasing the amount of water available to Hydro’s turbines there.

Also in 1997, Hydro-Quebec proposed to divert the Rupert River into the Eastmain and La Grande complexes.

That plan would see a large new reservoir near Nemaska and would leave the mouth of the Rupert filled with salt water.

Crees would have been minority shareholders in both projects and would have put up some of the financing in exchange for some of the profits.

Last year, Crees agreed that Hydro-Quebec could conduct feasibility studies of the Rupert project. Crees also received funds to conduct their own studies of the project.