The Grand Council of the Crees

TESTIMONY BY GRAND CHIEF MATTHEW COON COME of the Grand Council of the Crees (of Quebec)


Posted: 1993-03-22

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Joint Energy Committee, ladies and gentlemen. I am Matthew Coon-Come, Grand Chief of the James Bay Cree Nation. It is a pleasure to be here today, to testify at this important session of your legislative committee.

I have traveled here from the traditional lands of my people, the James Bay Crees. We call these lands Eeyou Astchee. It is still winter where my people live. Soon it will be spring, time for my people to go on our spring goose hunt, as we have done for thousands of years. We are a people of 12,000, and we have lived on the East Coast of the James and Hudson Bays in sub-Arctic Quebec, as it is now known, since time immemorial. We have always hunted, fished and trapped to survive, and still do.

I bring you the good wishes of my people, and our great hope that you will proceed with, and complete the important initiatives you are discussing today. The issue before you is whether the impacts of energy purchases by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts from other sources should be subject to social and environmental assessment under the laws of this state.

The Governments of Canada and Quebec, and Hydro-Quebec, will indicate a number of objections to this concept. They will protest that your resolution offends the principle of "extraterritorility". Your initiative, they will say, is contrary to principles of international relations, and will greatly harm relations between Massachusetts and Canada and Quebec.

In any case, they will tell you that this initiative by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is unnecessary, because there are no fewer than five impact assessment processes in place with respect to the Great Whale project, and that the quality of these processes is unequaled in the world. They will tell you that the Native peoples could not be more involved in all aspects of the environmental investigations surrounding the Great Whale Project.

In addition, they will tell you that the environmental and other human rights of the James Bay Cree are fully protected and assured, including by the much-touted James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975. And they will tell you that their actions in pursuing these developments are legal, constitutional and uphold the rule of law and all relevant standards.

They will tell you also that the harm on the environment and the Crees is greatly overstated, and that all that is happening is that some terrestrial habitat in Northern Quebec is simply being converted to aquatic habitat in Northern Quebec. They may even tell you that on balance, these projects are of benefit to the environment. Finally, they may tell you (or bring their anthropologists to tell you) that these hydroelectric developments have brought many benefits to my people; that the disappearance of the Cree culture and my people's way of live is at worst accelerated by some of the things they do on and to our lands, and is inevitable.

I have been sent here today by my people to tell you that in these matters, Canada, Quebec and Hydro-Quebec are wrong. Your legislation is the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do from a perspective of the North American and global environment, of which we are all part. It is the right thing to do from the perspective of energy policy. It is the right thing to do, because we can no longer claim that our actions are without impacts here and elsewhere, and really are someone else's business to assess. It is the right thing to do. Otherwise it will not be much longer before the last hunting societies of North America will be no more. It is the right thing to do because the people of Massachusetts and the United States can be counted upon to act in favour of vulnerable peoples, the environment, and human rights.

How do we know these things? We know, because since the 1970's, the Cree way of life has been devastated by the first phase of these massive hydro-electric developments. My people know and use all of these lands. Tens of thousands of square miles of muskeg lands, caribou calving grounds, fish, waterfowl and migratory bird habitats have been flooded or are slated to be flooded. Whole river systems have been dried up or diverted away from the sea, to create vast reservoirs. Other rivers, through which all this water is then released, have or will become raging causeways twenty times their natural size, even in winter when they should be frozen. The sea ice has been disturbed, affecting the ecology of James and Hudson Bay, upon which the Crees, beluga whales, elephant seals, polar bears and arctic char depend.

Our hunting grounds and ancestral burial grounds that are not already under water are, or will be, crisscrossed by huge transmission lines and networks of roads, airports and workers' camps. The ancient fishery, on which my people depend spiritually, socially and economically, has been all but destroyed in the La Grande watershed by mercury contamination. The Crees themselves have been contaminated.

The same contamination will be an inevitable product of the proposed second phase of this monstrous undertaking.

These are the impacts we have experienced over almost twenty years from the La Grande Project, itself one of the largest developments of its kind. What is proposed for Great Whale: Hydro-Quebec intends to cut off and divert the Little Boutin River toward the Little Whale River, which would be cut off and diverted through the present Coates River Valley which will be diverted into the Great Whale River. The Great Whale River would be diverted and made to flow directly into the Manitounik Sound. These rivers are each important "wilderness rivers" in their own right. Lake Bienville at the head of the Great Whale River will be inundated and increased in size by more than 400 square miles. Three major dams will be built on the Great Whale River including Great Whale Ill at Lake Bienville, Great Whale II downstream towards the coast and great Whale I which would receive the flow of the other northern rivers, on the coast. A road infrastructure over hundreds of miles would be built to facilitate construction, as would three large airports.

The upwards of 2,000 square miles of flooding in the Great Whale project would impact the whole ecosystem drained by these rivers, including the marine environment. The most productive wildlife habitats would be destroyed. In Lake Bienville, some of the most productive caribou calving grounds of North America would be flooded. The fish that live in this area would be contaminated by mercury released by the rotting of vegetation in flooded areas. Because the draw-down of the project would be as much as 50 feet in the Lac Bienville area, the shoreline habitat that is critical for otter, martin, bears and all the other animals that occupy this area would be eliminated. The shoreline could never re-stabilize in these areas. The Great Whale complex when completed will have a total reservoir area of over 8,000 square miles.

Then it will be the turn of the magnificent Nottaway, Broadback and Rupert Rivers watershed to the south. These three rivers would be destroyed by the project, adding a further 5,000 square miles of reservoirs to the Project.

Hydro Quebec describes these projects to the world in terms that minimize their impacts or make them appear benign. They also detail the remedial works which they have undertaken on the La Grande Complex, and which they promise to undertake if they build the Great Whaler and then the NBR Projects. It is true that trees have been planted in an effort to restore areas disrupted by the construction of the La Grande Complex. But let us not have our attention diverted from the central issue: if James Bay Phase II goes ahead, and the Great Whale River and NBR projects are built, at least 7 more major North American rivers will have been diverted, dried up, or flooded by these projects. What is presently a natural area with tens of thousands of miles of shoreline habitat with healthy wildlife populations will become a series of vast managed storage tanks where water is contained and released in perverse, seasonally inverted cycles.

It is the experience of the Crees that the governments of Canada and Quebec and Hydro-Quebec are not enthusiastic proponents of prior environmental and social impact assessment. The entire La Grande Complex, Phase I James Bay Project, was and is being built without formal prior assessment of its social and environmental impacts. It is stated that there were no jurisdictions in the 1970's in which such assessments were required. This is not true: federal environmental legislation requiring impact assessments has been in effect since the late 1960's in the United States. The Canadian and Quebec governments were so opposed to impact assessment that they insisted in 1975 on exempting La Grande from any impact assessment. To this day, important parts of the La Grande Complex are still being initiated, constructed and completed under the protection of this outdated and pernicious exemption.

Hydro-Quebec, Quebec and Canada now extol the virtues of the assessment processes for Great Whale. First, we are surprised that the governments take credit for the processes at all. The five impact assessment processes that we hear so much about were not always forthcoming. They were not given to the Crees as a gift or as of right.
The Great Whale impact assessment process has only come about at the eleventh hour before construction on the project infrastructure was due to begin. This was because of the principled intervention of a number of US. institutions and states; because of an impending hearing of an international tribunal; and because of the rulings of the Canadian courts. We had to sue the Canadian Government to trigger its process; the Federal Court ruled in our favour that Canada and Quebec (and I quote) "had conspired to circumvent the rights of the Crees" by attempting to avoid the impact assessment required by law. We had to sue Quebec and Hydro-Quebec not to split the project into smaller pieces, some of which they hoped could be built without meaningful prior assessment.

Second, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement oil 975(or the JBNQA) processes are seriously flawed and virtually meaningless to us. There is no requirement for public hearings in the process, and no provision for intervenor funding. The decisions of the process are only recommendations which are subject to reversal by environmental administrators or by governments. They amount to a closed-door rubber-stamp process for the approval of remedial works, or in the words of a recent independent analysis, "a procedure for the approval of project". There has never been a significant project or hydro-electric dam rejected in Northern Quebec by this review process. The time frames for undertaking critically important phases of the assessment are absurdly short, in some cases only 30 days. Worst of all, this process contains a binding provision that purports to prevent the Crees from ever raising social impacts as grounds to prevent or oppose hydro-electric developments. This provision is a breach of our fundamental human rights, and is evidence of the duress under which the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, and these developments, were imposed.

By suing the Canadian government, we managed to obtain the
application of the Federal Environmental Assessment Guidelines
Order, which as a law of general application is not part of the JBNQA.

While this federal process has to date shown itself to be legally weak when it comes to providing for impact assessment or stopping unacceptable projects, it did give my people access to a non-partisan review panel, intervenor funding, and mandatory public hearings. Because of the shortcomings of the 4 other JBNQA processes, it was critical to us that the federal process be triggered, as was required by the courts.

But in deference to the plans of Quebec -- Prime Minister Mulroney's home province -- the federal process has been circumvented and abandoned by the federal government itself! All of the concerned federal departments have either not attended hearings, or simply not participated. The same process has been discredited elsewhere in Canada. For example, in the case of the Oldman Dam in Alberta, the federal government refused to set up a review process until the project was almost completed. Nevertheless, the review panel recommended that the dam be decommissioned because of its probable impacts on indigenous peoples downstream. Within hours of this unprecedented protective recommendation, the federal government simply issued a license for the project. A very similar history comes from the recently completed Rafferty-Alameda Dam in Saskatchewan. In the case of the Kemano Dam in British Columbia, the Federal Minister of the Environment simply exempted it from any review. In other recent cases, review panels have resigned in protest over governmental irregularities that facilitated construction and circumvented review.

Worst of all, at the same time that Canada and Quebec are extolling their Great Whale impact assessment processes in the United States, the Federal and Quebec governments' lawyers are in court appealing the rulings that brought them about. Canada is arguing: that hydro projects are within provincial jurisdiction;
- that this means that even though they impact on critical areas of federal jurisdiction (such as migratory birds, fisheries, navigable waters, oceans and Indian peoples) the federal government is not required to conduct an impact assessment; - that the federal minister does not have the authority to order a
review; and that Canada does not have a responsibility to protect the rights and well-being of native peoples when they are impacted by projects built by provinces acting within their jurisdictions.

When the Canadian Ambassador tells Americans that the Canadian federal government will have the power to stop the Great Whale River Project, he fails to mention that his government's lawyers are in the courts trying to bring the processes to a close. His government has, in the words of the respected Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, "abdicated" its legal, constitutional, and fiduciary responsibilities to the environment and native peoples in the Great Whale process.

For its part, Quebec has interpreted the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement as providing virtually unlimited exemptions from impact assessment, at least with respect to the La Grande Complex. With respect to the Laforge I and II projects, a part of Phase I, Quebec proceeded on the basis of one line in the Agreement mentioning them as possible additions to the La Grande complex. We believed that fundamental changes in design since 1975 required public review. Moreover, we believed that if Hydro-Quebec was a responsible corporate citizen in the 1990's, it would now have voluntarily submitted its projects for prior assessment. Our major reason for wanting impact assessment of these two recent projects was to find ways in which mercury contamination could be limited. We thought that the size of the reservoirs could be changed and organic matter removed before flooding. Instead, Hydro-Quebec proceeded with construction while we were in the courts against it.

We failed to stop them, so in January 1993 we signed an Agreement with Hydro-Quebec for payments for remediation works, and for community works to help our people cope with the impacts in the already heavily impacted communities of Chisasibi and Wemindji.

Hydro-Quebec has used the fact that we signed this remediation and compensation Agreement (known as the Opimiscow Agreement) against us, to undermine our opposition to James Bay Phase II in Canada and the United States. They have deliberately tried to create the impression that the Crees are now negotiating for the Great Whale River and the NBR Projects, and that our opposition is insincere. One of Hydro-Quebec's tricks is to refer in its news releases to the Laforge Projects as "Phase II Projects", leading Americans and the media to believe that the Crees have 'sold out' on James Bay II. Let it be said: for the Crees, the La Grande Phase I rivershed is dead. We owed it to its residents to obtain minimal remediation and compensation. However, I must reiterate the words of Robbie Matthew, a hunter from the area: "This Agreement cannot compensate us for what is lost. I inherited this land from my ancestors. I was to pass it onto my son and my grandchildren."

It is with this background that we applaud efforts in the United States, such as the important resolution being discussed today. The Canadian Impact assessment process is flawed in design, and critically flawed in implementation.

But even if it were not, my people believe that passing your resolution is still the right thing to do. We live in an environmentally interdependent world. The waters of James and Hudson Bay belong to all of us; mercury contamination affects us all. The wildfowl and migratory birds that summer in the eelgrass on our lands are yours as well; if we were to hunt the geese to extinction, the impacts would be felt in your country. Likewise, the people of Massachusetts understand that the purchases and investments they make have impacts on the environment, here and elsewhere. They believe that if purchases of energy are to be made from Hydro-Quebec, these purchases should be subject to impact assessment according to the standards the people and the government of Massachusetts has set for themselves. This is not a mailer of the extraterritorial application of a Massachusetts law! It is quite simply the expression of your right, as the consumer, to determine the nature and level of disclosure about the product.

Hydro-Quebec is claiming that these projects will prevent the emission of greenhouse gases released by other energy sources. New research suggests that carbon emissions from sub-Arctic hydroelectric projects may be substantial. In addition to emitting large amounts of carbon dioxide, the vast reservoirs also emit large quantities of methane which has a greenhouse impact several times larger than carbon dioxide, and also result in the loss of thousands of square miles of carbon sink capacity. (Interestingly, the Canadian government has acted to prevent the presentation of this research by its researchers at international scientific conferences and at a New York State energy hearing in 1991).

Energy conservation is the primary viable replacement for Great Whale and other James Bay Hydroelectric projects. Conservation produces no greenhouse gases. There are also other more economically and environmentally acceptable alternatives, both in Quebec and here in Massachusetts.

What of the rights of the Crees, and the many benefits that hydro development is said to have brought us, and will bring us in the future? Like many fraudulent treaties imposed by governments on native peoples before the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975 was imposed on my people under grave duress. The bulldozers were already at work on our land in 1972. Two levels of government and the courts of Quebec were telling us we had no rights, and that if we did not sign, we would get nothing at all. In the words of an eminent member of Parliament at the time, the Crees were (and I quote)

"forced to deal.... with the accumulated might of Crown Corporations, the government of Quebec and other agencies. They were forced to negotiate under the gun of extraordinary conditions, conditions imposed upon an unsophisticated people [who] are by law the trust responsibility of the government of Canada.... There was an abdication of federal responsibility.... It is not acceptable that we approve of a process that has had the effect of forcing on native people in a distant part of this land agreements which in all reasonable likelihood they would not have accepted had they been able to negotiate free of the constraints placed upon them" (End of quote).

This speech was made by Mr. Joe Clark, who went on to become Prime Minister of Canada, and who is currently Minister of Constitutional Affairs.

By virtue of this 1975 Agreement, Quebec and Hydro-Quebec claim they extinguished my people's aboriginal rights, in particular to our lands. They claim that we consented to all future hydroelectric developments on our lands. They claim that we have agreed to all impacts whether foreseen or unknown, such as mercury poisoning and the loss of our culture and way-of life. They claim that we gave up the right to raise social impacts as grounds to oppose or prevent these projects.

Ask any Cree old enough to remember 1975: we did not agree to these things. In any case, no people can consent to something that, in effect, amounts to its demise as a people.

Quebec and Hydro-Quebec also claim that the Crees have received many benefits, and that since the Agreement, more than a billion dollars have been spent on the Crees. Before they wanted our lands and waters in 1971 governments had no interest in us, and gave us nothing. When the animals could not be hunted ~or the weather was harsh, or someone fell ill, my people simply perished. But then in 1971 when we began to oppose their plans, they came saying..."you know, we've been thinking..., you may need clinics and schools." And so it was that we were given some of these things. But many of their promises did not materialize. In 1980 eight children died in a sewage-related epidemic in the Cree community of Chisassibi. In 1993, Hydro-Quebec finally committed itself to building the necessary sewer, in exchange for our assent to its latest takings, the Laforge 1 and 2 projects. I am sure that in Massachusetts, utility corporations are not in the business of providing essential services to your communities, and that your communities do not wait 13 years after an epidemic for sanitation.

It is true that my people have received some benefits. But these were all benefits that non--native Canadian receive as rights. For the Crees, however, the situation is that we are only given schools, clinics, sewers, and certain local government rights, in exchange for our fundamental rights. And then, in many cases government promises have not materialized. What have materialized are things to which we would never have agreed. These things, like mercury poisoning, suicide, dependence, societal breakdown, and the loss of our way of life and our identity as a distinct people, are what have become our reality. And as for all the money spent on us since the 1975 Agreement, expenditure by all levels of government on the Crees has been lower than the Canadian per capita average.

I have said it before, and will say it once more: If we had known or been told what was involved, we would never have signed the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. Its terms are not honourable, and in any case they have not been honoured. Quebec's dream for the North has become our nightmare.

But knowing the behaviour of the animals, we have decided that unlike the red fox which slinks away to its hole when there is danger, we will not hide. We have come out to defend our lands, our waters, the survival of our way of life, and our fundamental status and tights. The Crees are the victims of environmental racism. Developments that would not be tolerated anywhere else are being forced on us. We Crees do not differentiate between environmental and other human rights. But it is true to say that both are being abused. Our relationship with our ancestors, our lands, our waters , our resources and our environment were given to us by the Creator, and are inalienable.

We are heartened that we are not alone in this struggle. Our environment is your environment. Our water is your water. If our rights are abused, all peoples' dignity is diminished. Many years ago, an American President went to another people and said he was a Berliner. My people understand the resolution being discussed today. We believe it says, "We are all Crees."

I would be pleased to answer any questions, as would my legal counsel, Andrew Orkin.