The chiefs of the three communities that will be most affected by the EM1-A project are making an 11th hour stand against the diversion of the Rupert River.
Waskaganish, Chisasibi and Nemaska adopted mandates recently to hold referenda by November 1 to give their community members a chance to accept or reject the hydroelectric project.
“Hydro-Québec never got the consent of Waskaganish on the Rupert diversion,” said Waskaganish Chief Robert Weistche. “And we never voted on that question specifically. So we like to be able to give the opportunity to our members to vote on that.”
Weistche said that his people aren’t looking to quash the 2002 Paix des Braves, rather he wants an open dialogue with Quebec and Hydro so his community can have their opinion heard.
“When we accepted the Paix des Braves, we accepted everything. We’re telling the people that we’re not going against the Paix des Braves, we’re not telling people it’s a bad deal.
“There’s so much money involved in this,” he continued. “There’s already billions and billions of dollars and many jobs involved. There are many deals that have gone on too, but at the same time people we were led to believe that they weren’t agreeing on the diversion, that’s what we were told by lawyers. But now when we meet, all the lawyers say, ‘Well you agreed already, you gave your consent, it’s going ahead.’”
Weistche said that that it wasn’t the band council who called for the referendum, it was trappers who would be most affected who asked for it.
“This is cultural genocide on First Nations people and the governments are aware of that. Why do we have such high rates of social problems like drugs and drinking? The suicide rate went up after the project went through in Chisasibi, and we’re going to be subject to the same thing later on down the road,” he said.
He clarified that he did not want to let an opportunity of hearing the people’s voice slip by. “There should be a clear question posed to the people,” said Weistche. “I don’t want people coming to me 30 or 40 years from now and saying ‘well you were there and you didn’t even ask them the question.’”
Chisasibi Chief Abraham Rupert agrees. He wants to give his people the chance to speak up and have their voices heard.
“Whether this [the referendum] stops it or not, I’m hoping this will bring the government and Hydro to sit down with the Cree Nation again,” said Rupert.
Rupert, along with his council, passed a unanimous resolution on October 3 to hold a November 1 referendum.
“Remember how we fought Great Whale, and what the Cree Nation did to save that river? Well we didn’t get a chance to do that this time around and I don’t think that’s right,” said Rupert.
Rupert told the Nation about the social problems that plague the community and the effects Chisasibi is still feeling today from the La Grande project built in the 1970s.
“When you uproot people from their birthplace, from where they used to gather, from where they raised their family and tell them they have to move because the land is going to wash away and erode; you’re bound to have something happen inside that person,” said Rupert, referring to the high suicide rate in Chisasibi and the rest of the Cree Nation.
“Can Hydro put a price on this way of life? The very source of who you are as a Native person? No. There is no price that they can put on that,” said Rupert, who added that the original scars from the JBNQA have still not been dealt with.
“My people have gone through a lot. Our community is downstream from a large body of water. That’s the anxiety that people carry here,” said Rupert, who added that there would be a great sense of relief if the EM 1-A project can be halted. He also added that a lot of vegetation still hasn’t had a chance to rebound from the original dam.
“The rivers, the land; the reality is that’s part of who we are. They cannot separate the land from the Cree, that is who we are.”
Hydro Québec spokesman Sylvain Theberge was reached by phone, but would not comment.