The communities of Chisasibi and Wemindji declared a state of emergency on Monday, December 5, following a total power outage that left homes and public buildings without heat at a time when windchills were reaching down into the -30s.
At press time, emergency supplies of generators, stoves, firewood, propane, flashlights and blankets were beginning to arrive from a variety of sources, including the Cree Regional Economic Enterprise Company (CREECO INC.) and Kepa Transport, Hydro-Québec and the Red Cross.
During the night of December 6, Hydro-Québec teams were able to make temporary repairs that have helped to restore power to roughly 35% of homes in Chisasibi, though no power has yet reached Wemindji.
The power outage began at roughly 9am Monday morning, after two of the transformers blew at the La Grande-1 (LG-1) power station in James Bay. Though residents were initially told to expect power to be returned by the end of the day, band councils were informed that afternoon that the outage could last more than two days. At 5pm, they declared a state of emergency.
At press time, the power outages have continued more than 48 hours, and officials at Hydro-Québec cannot say how much longer it will continue.
Luc Duquette, Hydro-Québec’s Aboriginal Relations and Projects Advisor, said, “For the moment, we’re still counting in days, but we don’t know how many days. It will be some time longer.”
Hydro-Québec is bringing in a total of 16 generators from the region and around Quebec to help supply power during the outage. Six are destined for Chisasibi, while 10 will go to Wemindji. Some are already in place, but all are expected to be operational by the morning of Friday, December 9.
Duquette explained that the generators are dedicated to those public buildings identified by community authorities.
“We are updating and adjusting to [communities’] needs as they develop,” said Duquette. “We have Hydro-Québec people in place to make sure that generators are connected according to the priorities of local authorities.”
There has been no need for evacuation thus far, reported Jonathan Saganash of CREECO Inc., though there are two Air Creebec planes ready should the need arise. CREECO Inc. and Kepa Transport have delivered at least one truckload of stoves, stove pipes, flashlights, batteries and propane to the affected communities.
“Everything is under control,” said Saganash. “The local people on the scene are doing a great job of keeping people informed. I had a talk with the Red Cross, and they’re holding back for now since we’ve stepped in, but they’ve helped us by providing blankets.”
Wemindji Chief Rodney Mark said the priority is getting generators in place to return power to public buildings. As a result, they can provide a warm place of refuge for those unable to heat their homes with wood.
Mark reported that the community is handling the outage well, but it is a severe difficulty for everyone.
“I’m not really satisfied with Hydro-Québec,” said Mark, “but we’re going to bring that up afterwards. Right now, we need to work together to get something going.”
Quebec Native Affairs Minister Geoff Kelley said the delay in returning power to the communities is partly due to the frailty of the system.
“The network is fragile,” said Kelley. “They don’t want to go in too quickly. Chisasibi is closer to LG-1, so that’s why they’re getting the power back first. Wemindji is a good 250 kilometres away, so it’s a bit trickier, but certainly we are open to increasing the number of generators there. We’ll just have to see how long it’s going to take to fix the problem.”
Kelley said the quick response of community members has prevented a serious disaster. “In small communities, they work together to find the resources necessary. There’s a wonderful spirit of neighbourliness.”
Echoing this sentiment, Saganash said, “I really care about my shareholders. I’m a Cree person and it’s just the human thing to do. All together we stand. We’ll never forget to help one another when it’s needed.”