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Construction commences on Hydro-Quebec megaproject

Cree Nation divided over Rupert River diversion

NEW YORK - Hydro-Quebec, the provincial utility that is a major energy exporter to the northeastern United States, has commenced construction on a new megaproject on Cree lands of Quebec's far north James Bay region.

The project, which would divert the waters of the Rupert River, has divided the Cree nation. The last chief of the Cree Grand Council, Ted Moses, signed on to the project and aggressively pushed it; but a new and more critical administration has since taken office in Cree country. The chiefs of the three communities to be directly affected by the water diversion are in active opposition.

''People aren't aware of how it will impact us and our way of life,'' said Robert Weistche, chief of Waskaganish, one of the three dissenting communities. ''We would lose the majority of the river because we live at the mouth, at the estuary. In light of global warming, one year there might not be any water at all.''

The project consists of a series of dams, tunnels and canals on the Rupert River, diverting 70 percent of the flow 100 miles north into the system of hydro dams already built in the Eastmain River watershed. The Rupert River diversion is slated to add 888 megawatts of power, flooding almost 373 square miles of traditional Cree lands. New roads, power lines, temporary cities and two new power stations are to be built in the remote region of boreal forest. The deal that approved the project also includes rights to timber and mineral exploitation in the region.

Canada's federal authorities approved the project in December 2006 after completion of an impact statement by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. But two federal commissioners disagreed with the assessment's methodology for evaluating methyl mercury contamination in the river. A Sierra Club study also maintains that the impact statement underestimates the amount of mercury that will be released by the new project.

''We depend a lot on the fish, and we're very concerned about the methyl mercury,'' Weistche said.

Mercury contamination was a disastrous result of the so-called ''James Bay I'' megaproject that saw construction of a series of dams on La Grande and Eastmain rivers in the 1970s, flooding 6,835 square miles.

In addition to flooding Cree hunting grounds, the James Bay I project poisoned Cree waters, with the increased pressure of the floodplains leaching mercury from the soil. The Cree were barred from consuming fish from the rivers, further eroding their self-sufficiency.

Waskaganish and fellow dissident community Nemaska are both along the Rupert River. The third dissenting community is Chisasibi, along La Grande River, downstream of the dams. Many residents there say James Bay I has changed local climate conditions.

Chisasibi Chief Abraham Rupert said the impacts ripple far beyond the riverbanks. ''The dams have had a great impact on the James Bay coast,'' he said. ''In the fall we used to have thousands of Canadian geese coming through. The eel grass they fed off grew in abundance along the coast. Now there's none at all. It took around 20 years for that to happen after the La Grande project.''

Rupert said the Canada and Brant geese have disappeared with the eel grass, and pointed out that his community has traditionally relied on them for food. Rupert attributed the eel grass decline to increased sediment, caused in turn by the hydro dams causing fluctuating water levels.

Weistche acknowledged that the Cree/Quebec agreement permitting the Rupert River project ''bars chiefs speaking against the signed deal. But our communities voted against it, and we have a responsibility to represent our people.''

In early 2002, the Cree Grand Council held a community-by-community referendum approving the project. Of the nine Cree communities, only Chisasibi voted ''no.'' But the impact study had not then been completed, and critics say the Cree had voted without knowing the project's full impact.

Under the deal, the Cree will receive $70 million per year for the next 40 years, plus a share in logging and mineral rights for the region.

The agreement - dubbed La paix des braves (''Peace of the Brave'') - stipulates that the Rupert diversion will not be allowed without the full support of local communities. Waskaganish, Chisasibi and Nemaska held their own vote in November 2006, which defeated the project by 80 percent.

''This question of acceptability is still up in the air, because three communities are opposed to the project,'' Weistche said. ''Yet things are going ahead as planned. The provincial government takes the position that the Cree signed the deal. But people were told, 'You're not agreeing to diversion, just to the process; we'll come back to you after the environmental review.' That never happened. It was done very swiftly.''

New Grand Chief Matthew Mukash, who took office in 2006, is proposing the development of wind power on Cree land instead of the Rupert diversion, which is slated to actually take place in the summer or fall of 2008.

Weistche supports this proposal. ''There are alternatives,'' he said. ''It's been estimated we have the potential to generate 100,000 megawatts from wind power in Cree country.''

Mukash emphasized that he supports development. ''We have the technology and know-how to produce energy through wind power. But the cost of this river project is too much for Cree people to bear at this time.''

''They say this power from the north is clean and cheap,'' Weistche said. ''Well, it's not clean because it is impacting the Cree. When you start losing the rivers that we've been given the responsibility to take care of for future generations, it's not right.''