Battle for the Rupert 

SPEECH TO

MCGILL UNIVERSITY

ENVIRONMENTAL LAW STUDENTS

 

by Éric Gagnon

Rupert Reverence

Wednesday, March 13th, 2002

Mr Lametti, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased to represent the members of Rupert Reverence, a coalition founded last October, in Chibougamau, essentially to protect the Rupert River, one of the last great virgin rivers on Earth, against unsustainable destruction. Our mission, with regards to the Rupert River, is to protect its integrity, to promote its beauty and to share its virtues.

In stories like this one, we are often referred to as the good guys - those who win in the end. This scenario is an excellent one, probably because the odds against us are exceptionally bad. The bad guys we are fighting include: Hydro-Quebec, the Government of Québec, the Grand Council of the Crees, l'Association de l'industrie électrique du Québec, the consulting engineers, and so on.

On our side, we are a dozen Cree and Jamesians river lovers working hard with a few hundred supporters and twenty or so supporting organisations and businesses, plus the force of a universe, the same force that creates suns, planets, mountains and rivers.

Playing the good guy may seem enjoyable, but we find it's tough on personal finances and on family life because we do this in our spare time, on top of working at our normal jobs. And it is tough on us to see that our income tax and municipal taxes are working against us!

But, believe me, this river is worth the effort… It is so beautiful, over 500 km long, without any roads or human habitation, with its pure water, fish as big as this, rapids, falls, nice flat sections larger than the St-Lawrence, unique species and landscape, an impressive historical and cultural curriculum. And all of this, 2 hours from town - the town being Chibougamau. Our vice president Robert and I always stress that these extraordinary conditions make the Rupert River QUEBEC'S SOUTHERNMOST LAST GREAT UNTOUCHED HERITAGE RIVER - a river to be protected and cherished forever as it is now.

A nachronistic

Hydro projects planned on the Eastmain and the Rupert have nothing to do with sustainable development, being altogether foolish and anachronistic. They were conceived at a time when the ozone layer did not mean anything to anyone, when recycling was unheard of and when highway 20 looked like a garbage dump. Back then, hydroelectricity was considered to be clean, renewable source of energy. The most recent scientific studies today reverse this belief and prove that the impacts of dams on ecosystems are profound, complex, varied, multiple and essentially negative. The glory days of hydroelectricity, once the pride of Quebecers, are well behind us. There is someone somewhere in Hydro-Québec, with long sideburns and checkered bell-bottom pants who plans the future through 1975 glasses.

Belonging  

The Rupert flows through Cree hunting and trapping territory, which is also category III land, in terms of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, placed under the responsibility of Quebec's Ministry of Natural Resources and the James Bay Municipality. In other words, it is land belonging to Quebecers of all origins. As a natural wonder, it also belongs to humankind as a whole. The Rupert is not for sale or for exchange as part of any deal. Cree and Quebec politicians as well as Hydro-Quebec would like you to believe that you have no say in it. The sustainable development of James Bay is a major issue about which nobody has really been consulted yet, and about which nobody has really even been informed. Yet, Eastmain/Rupert projects represent a 10 billion $ investment of public funds that will literally rape our collective heritage and deprive the generations to come of what James Bay has best to offer.

Cree consultation  

And speaking of consultation, we were led to believe that the Cree were consulted on the agreement – but this is not exactly true. Many witnesses reported that several discrepancies have seriously hampered the legitimacy of the process:

1.     Referendums were held on different days in each community;

2.   The wording of the referendum question varied from one community to the next;

3.    Results of the vote were divulged between each referendum;

4.    No real effort have been made to have the people in the bush and in off-reserve schools to vote.

5.    Subjective or evasive answers were given to serious concerns and questions from the participants. Opponents were often ridiculed.

The Grand Council of the Cree basically told its people: “Do not try to understand, it is too complicated, have confidence in us, we have made the right decision for you.” Most of the Cree still feel uneasy about this all to quick process. Half of them showed their disapproval by not voting in the referendum – culturally, the Cree manifest their opposition to something by turning their backs to it – and yet their own representatives used this cultural trait against them.

Divinity

We care for our wild yet fragile environment. Pygmee weasel (mustela novalis) and Lake sturgeon (acipencer fulvensens), are endangered, as are about thirty fish and mammals. But homo sapiens, human beings, still are the species most at risk. Homo sapiens is about to lose the few virgin rivers left on this planet. By losing these rivers, Homo sapiens is at great risk of losing a unique means of communion with Mother Nature, upon whom his very life depends. Homo sapiens is at risk of losing its capacity to acknowledge the beauty, the generosity and the grandeur of the Great Tsey-Manitou, as the Cree call him, that Nature mirrors. Homo sapiens is at risk of forgetting that it is truly a privilege to be able to dip one's hand or face in the pristine water of such a beautiful river; is homo sapiens really going to allow cement and heavy machinery in it?  

Environment

Up to 92% of the Rupert's water is going to be diverted northwards into the Eastmain. If you thought that diverting a plane could do some damage, imagine 800 cubic meters per second of water… It is enough to fill a two story house in a single second. The combined EM-1 and EM-1a projects involve the construction of 5 dams, 81 dykes, 1 000 square kilometers of affected land, 51 000 cubic meters of cement, 165 lakes and 5  rivers transformed forever.

Scientific research has shown us that the impacts on habitats, on riparian vegetation and terrestrial fauna, as well as on biodiversity are much greater than we thought they were over the past 30 years. Modification of natural flow, levels, temperature and biological content of water will all have a disastrous impact on James Bay ecosystems.

Indigenous genetic stock like the internationally renowned Rupert Speckled Trout Strain is at risk. We already knew about the lethal impact of mercury, but we have only recently discovered that reservoirs are big producers of methane and carbonic gas, greenhouse gases which you all know contribute to global warming. And the worst environmental impact of all, according to our board member Jacqueline, could very well be the opening of such wilderness areas to uncontrolled public access.

False promises

From a regional development standpoint, the Eastmain/Rupert projects threaten the sustainable development of a region by destroying what it has best to offer. The creation of temporary employment and of a local economic boom, once past, will leave Cree and Jamesian families poorer than ever. Nowhere in the world has construction of dams brought sustainable economic prosperity in its vicinity. Where are for example the 15 000 jobs the La Grande complex created in 1975? Of the 11 000 jobs-persons the Revelstoke Canyon dam in British Columbia created, only 42 permanent jobs remained after the construction.

Government  

What is to be said about the conflicting position of the provincial government, owner of Hydro-Quebec, interested in profit making and easily forgetting environmental and sustainable development issues? Few people know that the 3,8 billion $ the government of Quebec has promised the Cree over the next 50 years is only a consolidation of already existing programs and the transfer of responsibilities that the Government was already paying for… The Quebec government is not giving up much and is asking the Cree, in return, to sacrifice a river to which they owe their very existence… Rupert Reverence will be asking the politicians to redo a homework they did lazily and too quickly, in order to find another way to save the best aspects of the Cree-Quebec agreement while abandoning the Eastmain/Rupert projects.  

Hydro-Québec  

Is Hydro-Québec selling too much electricity to the US , supposedly to reduce the provincial debt, thus threatening domestic security water levels? Why is the water level in reservoirs so low? What is going to happen to electricity rates? Are electricity exports really profitable? And since Sept 11, as American big buyers are in greater need of a fool-proof energy distribution system, does Hydro-Quebec still have a market in North-Eastern USA? Rupert Reverence collaborators Stéphane and John think we should consider the amplitude and risk associated with the investments required, the volatility of the North American energy market, Hydro-Québec's  poor performance in terms of conservation and energy efficiency which runs counter to the official Quebec energy policy. The government is still living in the past, subsidizing the building of more aluminum smelters hand in hand with Hydro-Québec who wants to dam every viable river. And of course, not taking into account the cost of environmental losses helps make believe hydroelectric projects are profitable.

K ayak and ecotourism

For development to be sustainable, it must respect local culture and last over generations. From the recreo-tourism standpoint, the hydro-electric installations will have the effect of sabotaging the promising tourism and recreation industry in James Bay . With its extraordinary landscapes, the Rupert River has carved itself a continental reputation with canoe enthusiasts. Its pristine water, its almost virgin habitats and the possibility of contact with Native communities make it an ecotourism destination of great promise on the international market. Sylvain, a friend who made me discover the Rupert through whitewater kayak, also foresees that in a not so distant future, James Bay may greet a lot of people escaping global warming and looking for safety, open space, healing environment, a remedy against urban diseases and disorders. 

Conclusion

In conclusion, from awe, purely and simply, spring the best reasons to protect the Rupert: those that the River at times whispers and other times roars in the ear of the passer-by, telling dimensions of grandeur, beauty, sacredness, using a universal language too scarcely heard. We have all, at sometime, experienced this deep appreciation for what nature offers us. An inner state of reverence that brings about the desire to cherish, to protect, to make a natural marvel known to all humankind.

Rupert Reverence's objective is thus to bring the river closer to the people, and the people closer to the river, in order to give rise to a collective desire to shield it against short sighted exploitation appetites and suspicious financial and political, pre-electoral interests.

Rupert Reverence states that neither peace nor development can ever be sustainable in a region where promises of billions will most certainly appeal to the most shadowy aspects of human activity and where hydro-electricity will accomplish its irreversible dismantling of ecosystems, landscapes, heritage and pride.

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