Friday, November 23, 2007

Cree leaders surrender the Rupert River to Hydro Quebec

[October 29, 2001] After fighting the Quebec government, and its agency Hydro-Quebec, in its plans to dam the major rivers and log the forests on their ancestral lands, the Cree have surrendered the Rupert River. According to news reports, the Rupert will be diverted north into the Eastmain River.

In return the Cree may receive $3.5 billion over the next 50 years, more decision-making authority over resource decisions on their lands, and a share of profits on resources extracted. The Crees must withdraw lawsuits that Canadian Press estimates are seeking $3.6 billion in damages.

This is a remarkable capitulation after fighting for decades with a tenacity and cunning that would make a politician drool with jealousy. And now the Cree are in bed with a government that has repeatedly failed to honor previous agreements.

The Cree found themselves caught in a difficult situation. Their communities are mostly composed of people under the age of 25 who have no interest in the land. There is no real economic development, no opportunities, with the resulting social problems. Quebec has continued to mine and log their land and the Cree were getting nothing in return, nothing but the feeling of losing by a thousand cuts.

Is the River Dead?

It is a tragedy that the foremost defenders of the Rupert have capitulated. It is equally tragic that they felt they had to. And it is a tragedy, though not entirely a certainty, that the great river may be drowned.

Environmental assessments by the provincial and federal governments are required, and theoretically could reject the dams. But historically neither sets of processes have good track records for killing bad ideas.

Environmentalists are now out in the cold without their biggest ally. Of course, they can still fight the project, but they will likely go up against the Cree who now have billions at stake. An awkward twist of fate.

The agreement, signed by the Grand Council of the Cree on October 23, must still be ratified by the communities. But will the communities approve? Three of the nine communities — Mistissini, Nemaska, Waskaganish — are located in the Rupert watershed. Former grand chief Billy Diamond of Waskaganish was quoted in the National Post voicing his shock at the deal, saying there is going to be "bitter internal fighting among the Crees."

Life Changed Forever

Five years ago, the Province of Quebec and the Cree Grand Council signed a treaty that provides roughly $70 million in annual compensation, if the Cree allow hydro development to continue.

Three villages refused to sign on. But in Nemaska, where opposition is strongest, Hydro-Quebec is paying individual Cree to clear-cut their own traditional hunting grounds in preparation for the river diversion.

Walter Jolly sits by the side of the road in his dusty pick-up truck, which has logging tools piled in the back. Jolly said he's taken a lot of heat from other Cree for signing on with Hydro-Quebec.

"We still got a lot of land. It's only about a not even a quarter," Jolly said.

If Hydro-Quebec keeps to its construction schedule, by 2012 hundreds of thousands of Americans will be turning on their light switches and without knowing it, they'll be drawing cheap, low-carbon power from the Rupert River.

But far away in the north, this wild landscape and the Cree way of life will be changed forever.

Here is the full article.