Years ago, dam-builders came to develop the vast hydroelectric potential of the remote James Bay region of northern Québec. They called the region barren because it had no agriculture and was sparsely settled by indigenous people who lived off the land. When those people, the Crees, found the dam-builders changing their land without permission, they fought back. They won some court battles but were overwhelmed by the political and economic forces that were driving the big project. Still, the Crees succeeded in getting the governments and companies behind it to agree to meet some of their needs for social and economic development, and the project went forward.

Photo: Hydro-Québec
Eastmain-1-A intake will channel flow to three 256-MW Francis turbines.

But the governments failed to honor the agreements. When the dam-builders came to build another big project, the Crees organized an effective campaign that combined court action with international public information. Five years and millions of dollars later, the dam-builders canceled the project.

The dam-builders returned 10 years ago with a different approach: They asked permission. Then they negotiated an agreement that recognizes and treats the Crees as a sovereign nation of equal stature with the province of Québec, with enforceable provisions for employment as well as social and economic development benefits for the Crees.

Like hundreds of other treaties between governments and Native peoples in North America, the agreement is not perfect. But unlike most of them, it appears it is being honored in spirit. The project is rolling smoothly, even a bit ahead of schedule, and the Crees are largely satisfied with it. By 2012, it will be generating an additional 918 MW for Hydro-Québec.

No Small Plans

The Eastmain-1-A/Sarcelle/Rupert Diversion project (ESR) sprawls over more than 700 sq kilometers on the east shore of James Bay, the southernmost extension of Hudson Bay. The project will divert water from the 560-km-long Rupert River northward, where it will flow through two new powerhouses with a total capacity of 918 MW. Then, having crossed the watersheds of four other rivers, the flow will empty into a fifth, La Grande, which will carry it to James Bay. The payoff is greater than the added capacity, though. The two new powerhouses will generate 3.4 terawatt-hours per year, but the increased flow in the La Grande will allow the three powerhouses downstream to generate an extra 5.3 TWh, at a cost Hydro-Québec has calculated at 5¢ per kilowatt-hour.

Hydro-Québec’s Strategic Plan 2006-2010 calls this “the most important project of Hydro-Québec’s program for this decade.” The province-owned utility’s colorful materials for the public tag it “The Project of the Decade,” an echo of Québec Premier Robert Bourassa’s name for its predecessor—“The Project of the Century”—in 1971, when he announced his La Grande Project to harness 10,190 MW of hydroelectric capacity in northern Québec.

Compared with that, ESR is small, but by no means negligible. Costing $4.4 billion, it involves construction of a 768-MW powerhouse called Eastmain-1-A beside the Eastmain-1 Powerhouse commissioned in 2007, 150-MW Sarcelle Powerhouse, four dams, a spillway/instream flow-release structure on the Rupert, 74 dikes, two diversion bays with a total area of 346 sq km, a 2.9-km-long tunnel linking the bays, a network of canals totaling 7 km, eight hydraulic structures on the Rupert below the dam and a ninth at the project’s far northern end ,where it empties into the La Grande.

Hydro-Québec also is breaking new ground in technical innovations, not only for its own facilities but also for construction in North America, most notably the continent’s first asphalt-core dam. But what may well be the most significant innovation is the relationship between Hydro-Québec and the Cree Nation, the result of 38 years of contact that began with bitter conflict and has evolved into a collaboration to achieve mutual benefits.

“We are not totally anti-development,” said Matthew Mukash, outgoing grand chief of the Crees, at a construction conference this year. “We support sustainable development in our region that is compatible and respectful of our culture and the traditional way of life.”

But to the Crees 10 years ago, the Eastmain-1-A project had the potential to reprise a 30-year-old recurring nightmare. Hydro-Québec had a history of entering the Crees’ traditional lands unannounced and uninvited and treating them as “squatters on our own lands, an impediment to ‘development,’ an inconsequential...