That was the attitude toward the indigenous Cree people of James Bay when Quebec’s Premier Robert Bourassa launched “the project of the century” in 1971. “This of course was done without our consent, and without even informing us,” wrote Ashley Iserhoff, deputy grand chief of the Crees in a 2006 statement to the committee performing the environmental assessment for the Eastmain-1-A and Rupert Diversion project.
The sudden, unheralded appearance in Cree country of road builders, engineers, surveyors and dam construction workers catapulted the Crees from a shared way of life and a traditional economy based on hunting, trapping and fishing into a political, social and economic development equal to the late-20th-century challenge washing over them. “We were then deemed squatters on our own lands, an impediment to ‘development,’ an inconsequential and troublesome leftover of the past, a people without any rights and who could simply be moved around to accommodate so-called ‘progress’,” Iserhoff wrote. “We decided to fight in the early 1970s, and to a large extent this fight is still continuing to this day.”
More than many indigenous peoples in this position, the Crees have successfully adapted to the requirements of the challenge facing them. Within just a few years, they were able to form a representative council to speak for them. In the last decade they have negotiated agreements with the Quebec government that guarantee protection of their rights while securing promises that they would be principal beneficiaries of the inevitable harnessing of the hydroelectric potential of their traditional land. The results have not been perfect nor entirely as advertised, but they have been acceptable to most of the Crees affected by the changes.
Bourassa’s original plan was to develop James Bay in three phases. Hydro-Quebec largely got what it wanted in the first, the 10,180-MW La Grande Complex, completed in 1985. But the Crees contend that neither Canada nor Quebec fulfilled their obligations under the agreements of the 1970s. When Hydro-Quebec tried to construct James Bay II, the Crees successfully mobilized international opinion against the project. Matthew Coon Come, who last month won election as the grand chief of the Crees, led a spectacular canoe trip from James Bay to the Hudson River, prompting both the New York Power Authority and Consolidated Edison Co. of New York to cancel their power-purchase agreements with Hydro-Quebec. James Bay II was dead.
The experience of that defeat may have motivated Hydro-Quebec to rethink its approach to its James Bay dreams. The 2001 "Agreement Respecting a New Relationship Between the Cree Nation and the Government of Quebec," also called la Paix des braves, and the peaceful progress on the Eastmain-1-A-Sarcelle-Rupert Diversion project are the result of a humane, culturally sensitive attitude by the utility, which, combined with a willingness to share the benefits, has elicited cooperation from the Crees.
No dam-builder can afford to ignore the lesson of James Bay. However passionately you may believe in the benefits to be gained from construction of a huge hydroelectric project or of a dam for water supply or irrigation, you will continue to meet resistance and delay, and risk failure, if you fail to gain the buy-in of the people who will be most directly affected by its construction.