Battle for the Rupert 

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February 6, 2002

Whose betrayal?

By Brian Back

The Crees have fought with persistence and cunning for 12 years to defend the Great Whale River against one of North America's most environmentally corrupt governments. Their success created an image of an invincible defender of James Bay. Yet tomorrow the Crees will sign a deal with Quebec to divert the Rupert River and expand flooding of their land. What happened to the Great Northern Hope?

One day in 1971, the bulldozers entered Cree territory without notice, and when the Crees objected they were not even offered compensation. Only after the Crees launched legal action, did Quebec offer any. But to add to the tragedy, the Crees had to extinguish their rights to the land to get it. As construction continued unabated, it was obvious they had to take what was offered.

In 1975 they signed the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA). It permitted damming of the La Grande River and diversions of the Eastmain, Caniapiscau and Sakami Rivers into it. The agreement also covered two more massive projects: the Great Whale and Nottaway-Broadback-Rupert (NBR).

Fifteen years later, faced with the social and cultural impacts of the relentless loss of more land, their traditional way of life and mercury poisoning, all a result of the original La Grande hydro-electric project, the Cree chose to fight the Great Whale. They succeeded in making their cause an international issue and cost Hydro Quebec billions in lost power contracts to the United States. Quebec backed off and postponed the project. 

After Great Whale there was no pause in the onslaught on their land and their health. clear-cutting pushed north, wiping out traplines and hopes for their own economic development of the area. The water around Ouje-Bougoumou First Nation was poisoned by mine runoff. Quebec reneged on many provisions of the original agreement and held up payments. They fought back by appealing to the public, to international bodies, and to the courts. Gradually they sank into perpetual legal hell with outstanding lawsuits claiming over $3 billion in 2001.

Meanwhile their population has exploded to over 13,000 and unemployment rages. They need money for more homes, more schools and jobs. Kids wander the streets in gangs, and alcohol and drugs take their toll. A smaller and smaller percentage of their people work, or even travel, on the land. Their way of life has changed forever.

Now, Quebec says it wants to begin building dams again. But it had been hurt badly by the Crees in the last decade. It needs them onside.

They sit down and work out a deal. The province gets to divert the Rupert River into the La Grande system, and dam and flood the upper Eastmain, and  the NBR project is cancelled. The Crees get money already promised, additional money, some control over logging, and they give up their lawsuits. 

So what has been lost environmentally? Well, the logging was going on without restraint. Now there will be some. The Eastmain dam and reservoir would likely have gone ahead without Cree opposition as the river had been considered lost after the lower section had been diverted in 1979. The Cree had no more legal leverage, having lost a lawsuit in the early 1990s.

The Rupert was part of the original NBR. That project would have flooded 8,000 square kilometers and destroyed three rivers, including the entire Rupert. In this deal only the upper Rupert is impacted by diversion and just 975 square kilometers flooded.

If you accept that the entire three-stage James Bay Project was inevitable, then this is an environmental success. This is a massive reduction of the NBR. Maybe not perfect, but still huge. 

You could argue that the Crees could have used the same tactics they used so successfully against the Great Whale Project. But that was ten years ago. The Crees have more people and more problems. They have drifted away from the land. They are poorer today in financial resources and fighting battles is expensive. Maybe they are battle fatigued too. How successful could they be?

Maybe they wonder where we were the last ten years. Would we have given them the support they needed next time? And who would foot the bill? Maybe it was our betrayal.

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