The Grand Council of the Crees

Social Impact on the Crees of James Bay Project


Posted: 0000-00-00

Because the Cree people depend so largely on the natural regime --- the forests, rivers, lakes, trees, animals, birds and fish --- it is not easy to separate social from environmental impacts. For example, the destruction of a wetland habitat on which moose and beaver depend can have (and in many places has had) a devastating social impact on those who depend on country food.
In the Cree villages this includes almost everyone. Not just full-time hunters, but salaried or wage employees who work in the band offices or schools, or operate road maintenance machines, or work in the developing service companies, all hunt after work, weekends or during holidays. They hunt not simply for recreation, or to satisfy some primordial cultural need (although that is a factor, too). The fact is, they depend on moose and beaver and fish for food.

"Food from the land is the dominant part of the family diet for all Crees," writes Ignatius La Rusic, the McGill anthropologist who has spent a lifetime studying the Cree economy, "and the loss of this protein resource is not easily or inexpensively substituted." La Rusic writes from detailed knowledge of the effects of James Bay I on the Cree household economy, and is one of the observers best able to compare with how it was before.

The James Bay project was built in the 1970s before any basic data was collected about the environment or social condition of the people, and certainly the dam-builders had no interest in the connection between the two. It is therefore difficult to describe with any accuracy the impact of the project, for there is little base data against which to compare the modified conditions. The attitude of the dam-builders to environmental changes was that if problems showed up as the project was being built, they could be modified by so-called remedial measures. Furthermore, it is clear from their approach to the proposed James Bay II that they intend to proceed in the same way in future. In the circumstances it is not surprising that Hydro-Quebec guides to the project sites tell visitors that there have been "no environmental effects", except for the unexpected mercury in the reservoirs and rivers. Hydro-Quebec "experts" make some ludicrous claims in their attempts to pretend that the consequences of their project were negligible. For example, at one conference in Montreal, a Hydro-Quebec spokesperson said that the fish in the Eastmain river were "within normal limits" --- which seemed to mean that the effect on the fish of the removal of 80 per cent of the water from the river had been almost nil. Since they intended in the Great Whale river project to proceed in the same way as in the past, one could say that Hydro-Quebec learned nothing from their experience. More accurately, one might say that their "remedial" approach proved to be so convenient and easy for them that, having been able to get away with it once, they hope to do so again.

The second time around, however, Sections 22 and 23 of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement and the Federal Environmental Assessment and Review Guidelines provided for assessment of environmental and social impacts in advance of construction of any development projects in the territory. The governments fought tenaciously to evade their responsibilities under these sections, so that the Crees had to go to court to ensure that the law be enforced. In a notable judgment, Mr. Justice Rouleau of the Federal Court of Canada concluded that the environmental and social sections of the Agreement were placed there as measures of protection for the aboriginal way of life. He found that the governments were deliberately trying to circumvent their responsibilities, and ordered that the provisions of the law be implemented. He called some of the arguments put forward in Court by the Canadian government (supported by Quebec and Hydro-Quebec) "ludicrous", and only after his withering judgment did the governments agree to fulfil the detailed provisions of Sections 22 and 23, which cut the Crees and Inuit into decision-making about the environmental impacts.

As a result of this judgment, a social and environmental assessment of the Great Whale River Hydro project had to be undertaken under the aegis of the JBNQA. The assessment carried out by Hydro-Quebec proved to be a mere regurgitation of some 5,000 pages of studies done in the previous 15 years or so, was not specifically directed to the likely environmental and social effects of the Great Whale River project, and was so unsatisfactory that the evaluating committees ordered Hydro-Quebec back to square one. Faced with this prospect, the Premier of Quebec, Jacques Parizeau indefinitely postponed the Great Whale project in 1994.

1. The evidence of Alan Penn

In the absence of any coherent and researched account of the social impacts so far observed, one can only collect suggestive information from disparate sources about the likely impacts of the proposed future work.

The unsatisfactory nature of the social, cultural and environmental assessment of work done in the James Bay region was well described by the Crees' environmental co-ordinator, Alan Penn, in evidence he gave on Feb. 14, 1990, to the National Energy Board:

"There has unfortunately been no comprehensive effort to evaluate the social and cultural impacts of the La Grande Complex. Some years ago, a proposal was made by the Cree Regional Authority for such an evaluation...but the idea was not pursued by the James Bay Energy Corporation....We are in a situation similar to that...of environmental impacts...There was no prior environmental assessment of the Complex during the 1970s and 1980s. Similarly there was no social and cultural impact assessment. ....The social and cultural context is changing as communities acquire ecological knowledge about the changed environment, and modify their use of it.

"The first...point that should be made is that the Complex La Grande required the relocation of one of the largest subsistence-oriented native communities in northern Canada. The project...would not have been possible without this relocation.

"Relocation...involves considerable social and cultural stress. These stresses have received extensive study in other contexts, in Newfoundland outpost communities and Indian settlements elsewhere in the Canadian sub-arctic. Enough is known about community relocation for us to be very wary of the risks of serious disruption of the ties that maintain family life...and make up a community.

"(In) Chisasibi...with a population of roughly 2,500...we are dealing with two distinct groups, of hunters whose skills are linked to the use of coastal and estuarine resources, and of in-landers who hunt and trap in the hinterland, the region of the reservoirs and forebays of the La Grande project. Each group has been affected in different ways by hydro-electric development. The coastal people are faced with ecological changes associated with the radically altered flow regimes resulting from basin development and inter-basin transfers.... These changes are not well understood, and will continue to evolve for....probably 10 to 15 years.

"What we do know is that the changed thermal regime of the La Grande river has made access to the north shore a major issue for the north coasters. The river remains open and the coastal ice is dangerous and unpredictable. A road has been built, as a remedial measure, but it entails a journey by truck of 80 km. The hunter's equipment, in addition to skidoos, freighter canoes and outboard motors, includes the ground transportation needed to use this relief road. Evidently, patterns of land resource use have changed as a result, and will no doubt change further. There are long-range implications for land tenure and territorial organization...

"We know as well that the community fishery has declined sharply in the lower La Grande river. In part this is attributable to mercury, since the La Grande river, especially above the first rapids, is heavily contaminated. Above these rapids the river has been closed for fishing completely. Below them, there is a mix of fish, some with low mercury concentrations typical of the coastal environment, but others with concentrations some 20-30 times levels recorded before the hydro-electric development took place....Many families...decide simply to avoid fish altogether. This is particularly obvious in the case of women of child-bearing age. This group is generally only exposed to very low levels of methyl mercury. But this is because women have stopped eating fish. Given what we know about the role of fish in nutrition during pregnancy in the north, we must wonder what the larger public health implications of these dietary shifts really are."

Penn said Hydro-Quebec spokesmen boasted about how effective they had been in reducing exposure to mercury to natural levels, the same as before the project was built, but he added:
"At what social cost have these changes been made? This is an issue that needs to be addressed."

He said that research on changing diseases and causes of death in northern communities indicates that closer attention should be paid, for example, to diabetes and the frequency of different kinds of trauma.

Other factors he mentioned were the impact of hydro-electric development on the way the fishery is conducted by the Crees. Traditional fishing sites have been lost or transformed by the combined effects of the power plant and the higher water levels of the late summer and falls. The fishing sites are now dangerous, and use of them is now considerably reduced.

"Considerable qualities of sand from bank erosion and land slips upstream have been deposited at the mouth of the La Grande river, with numbers of trees jutting out from the sands in the shall waters --- a constant hazard for freighter canoes. The pattern of navigable channels is changing....The feasibility of the older fishing sites has changed....These are consequences of the sometimes spectacular erosion, including some major landslides, that is taking place along the La Grande between LG1 and LG 2."

He says the inland hunters have benefited from the new roads, but these benefits are conditioned by a number of factors. The distribution of hunting territories, an essential cultural feature of Cree society, has been challenged by the 11,000 square kms of flooding, and by the emerging network of roads....Indeed, the survival of the Cree system in the face of widespread road building and uncontrolled access is a major consideration in assessment of the impacts of forestry in the southern part of James Bay, and of the proposed 1,000 kms of roads that will be needed to build the NBR (Nottaway-Broadback-Rupert) project.

"All of this demonstrates that the development of the La Grande river has indeed been accompanied by significant social and cultural impacts," Penn told the National Energy Board. "These impacts may not yet have been studied exhaustively, but there is strong prima facie evidence of their general character."

2. The view of the hunters, 1989-90

In other parts of the territory, when filmmaker Boyce Richardson visited Eastmain in 1989 and 1990 he found that hunters there were assuming that their way of life was doomed: in 20 years, no Cree hunting life would remain, they told him. The effect here was opposite from that on the La Grande, where water flow was hugely augmented. The Eastmain river, by contrast, was dammed and the waters diverted 200 kms north into the LG 2 reservoir. This dried up the lower stretches of the river, and hunters were unanimous in declaring that the many animals which once inhabited the wetlands along the river were no longer there to be caught. The Eastmain chief, Ted Moses, himself son of an elderly hunter, said that probably we were now seeing the last generation of people who would make their living from hunting in the old way. This would require, he said, that the village be extremely innovative in finding alternative means of livelihood for its people.

In both years, Eastmain hunters were offered considerable work in constructing the new houses, public buildings and infrastructure in the village. The housing stock has been almost completely replaced. One social consequence is that people who once lived a subsistence life in the bush now find themselves confronting rather large monthly payments for their houses and the services they demand: they therefore, have a strong incentive to engage in wage employment, rather than in the traditional forms of subsistence hunting. This has, of course, been reinforced by the recent drop in fur prices, caused largely by the European campaign against the trapping of fur-bearing animals.

The views of some hunters and elders, as explained to Richardson:

Jimmy Mianscum, Ouje-Bougoumou:

Today the people have problems because the white man is working all over the place, destroying the land and the people. It's really hard to hunt and live off the land...All the trees have been cut on my land. The only trees you see are on the side of the roads; past that, it's all cut. There is no place for the animals to shelter, it is all destroyed.. The government keeps stealing...They built towns, airports, hydro stations and sawmills (on my land) and yet I was never compensated.

Willie Moses, Eastmain:

Today when I think back before the white man came around, anywhere an Indian wanted to drink water was good. But today you can't do that because of the dam. Only from the lakes on the side of the road and creeks...They are the only places to get water. Here in Eastmain not everyone drinks the water that we have. Rain water is another source but there is no other place...only some clean water comes through the store but it's hard for people to get because it's so expensive... It wasn't explained to us what would happen to our hunting ground. We started to lose our livelihood when they made the dam....We used to go up the river all the time. It was nice the way people made their living before the white man came. People from far away used to stay here and hunt. They didn't have a lot of stuff from white society...But now it's good for nothing. The people have no use for the land because you can't use it. We have lost it.

Abraham Weapinacappo, Eastmain:

The people are against the building of dams. This land is what they lived off, and that is why they are against it. I know it's going to be bad for the people with grandchildren and those yet to be born. That's why people are not happy when they hear there are going to be more dams....The future doesn't look good for the people if they go ahead and do what they want to do. The traditional way of life will be destroyed, I know that....It disagrees with me from what I have seen so far. I feel like I have been punched...I have been hurt inside... I never felt that way before. That's how I feel when I think about the project. The Cree way of life is totally lost. That's what I have seen since the beginning of the project.

The following opinions were collected by Glen Cooper for the Grand Council of the Crees:

Clarence Gull, Waswanipi

I have seen the damage logging companies have done to our land, and as the tree line fades the animals disappear with it. This has had a devastating effect on the people. They have come to destroy the forest, the wild life and the people. The white man is taking away from us any opportunity for any development that we might have done for ourselves as a nation, but most importantly for our children.

Annie Eagle, Waswanipi

I have true and honest feelings when I hear someone speak of the land, for I can understand them. For years I have depended upon the land as a way of life, it's kept my children from being hungry, as it kept my ancestors alive for many years. I ask myself: how will we be able to survive if there are no trees?

Noah Eagle, Waswanipi

For years I have helped the Cree youth, they have asked me to teach them the traditional practices. My response to them was it will be hard for you to learn, for everything done in our traditions relies on the land and comes from the land. Today it is harder to teach these practices to the youth because the land is being destroyed by loggers and by Hydro-Quebec. A school teacher would probably say: how am I supposed to teach if I have nothing to teach with?

Philip Dixon, Waswanipi

I can say that the white man should not ask for any more from the natives, for he has done enough damage to our land. The way I see it, the white man tries to work against and destroy what the creator had reserved for mankind. Will the destruction only stop when mankind is extinct?

Chisasibi elder

Today I stand on the land I used to hunt on, but now there's a town that Hydro has built, it is here that my child was born and it is here where my ancestors lie. It is on this land that my dad hunted, he left no sign of his presence and I left no sign of my presence. How is this justifiable?
I am sure that nobody from the south would appreciate it if this was done to them. I am told that the fish are contaminated with mercury. For years I have depended upon the land as a means of survival, today I am told not to eat the fish, how can I just stop from eating it when for years I have lived off it? Who would eat something that they were told had poison in it? I am pretty sure nobody would!

Billy Cooper,Waswanipi

Before James Bay was ever built, food was plentiful and good to eat, but now what are we left with? Because of peoples' unreasonable demands on the land, we are dying.

Chisasibi elder

The Creator gave me a beautiful garden to watch and maintain. I was told to take from it only what I needed to survive. The Creator has also given the white man his own garden to watch and maintain. The white man came and destroyed the garden I was told to care for. How would the white man feel if we had gone and destroyed his garden? What would happen to us? We'd be put into jail and called criminals. So ask yourself who has committed the crime?

3: Testimony of a young man

Writer Boyce Richardson recalls having interviewed in September 1990 a young man in Chisasibi, an ex-alcoholic, who told him how disoriented he had become as a young boy at about the time that Fort George village was destroyed and replaced by the new village of Chisasibi. He spoke of his decline into trouble-making and minor vandalism around the village, involvement with drugs, and finally committal to a reform school near Montreal. But though he was willing to talk about it on camera, he said after thinking it over for a few days that he did not know if his problems had been caused by the relocation of the village or not. He could not say for sure that they were.

Much evidence about social impacts is like this: it is hard to say how much of the impact is due to the James Bay project, and how much due to other factors.

What follows is an article from Canadian Forum, December 1989, written by Richardson after a visit to Chisasibi.

4. A Bleak view of life in the "model village"

(an article written by Boyce Richardson in Canadian Forum magazine December 1989, after a visit to Chisasibi).

The federal government holds up the James Bay Agreement, signed in 1975, as the model for Indian self-government in the country. They like it because under this Agreement the Cree people surrendered their rights in their traditional homeland, and agreed to allow the Quebec government to build its huge hydro project in their hunting grounds. The Cree received in return certain rights in lands around their villages, a sum of money that has so far amounted to $139,000,000, and some powers of local government.

The Agreement has certainly transformed native life in James Bay, but it is hard to know whether for the better or worse.

Last summer I visited the new town of Chisasibi --- fashionably designed around the housing "clusters" that were a North American suburban planning fad twenty or thirty years ago. I arrived on a Friday. A wedding was to be held that night. "There'll be a lot of drunks around," said the fellow at the gas station.

The old village was not on the road. The new one is about 60 miles from the company town of Radisson, built for executives and workers from the south, and the source of the liquor that is one of the model town's major problems.

I was there for the weekend. One youth tried to commit suicide. One girl took an overdose of pills. One young man was found passed out on the river shoreline, half in and half out of the water, three teenagers ran a van into the river and had to be treated in hospital, a woman who had been badly beaten up in a drinking quarrel in a nearby house came and asked to be driven home. The bootleggers circled the town selling the beer from out of their vans.

In the week after I left, there were four more attempted suicides.

The village people, angry, then blocked the road and stopped the bootleggers from entering the town. A month later a new chief was elected.

This is everyday life in the model town, under the model Agreement, in a province proud of its success in pushing the frontier north.

Everyone I spoke to there talked about the severe social problems that have accompanied the invasion of the whites from the south, the so-far feeble efforts to deal with them, and the indifference of the governments, who believe they have now dealt with the Crees, and that's that. Ironically, the whites up there don't really care about the Crees, have not set out to destroy them, and know little about what is happening to them.

Apart from the new houses and facilities that are the most obvious change from the old days, there has been one other major, fundamental change. A culture that once was built around the hunting and gathering of food for subsistence has become monetarized.

Houses that once were free are now expensive, mortgaged, and serviced with electricity and water systems. Their occupants need money to pay their monthly bills. There is work in this village building the new arena, the new pool, the new houses and shops --- and nowadays when a hunter has a choice between taking construction work in the village and going hunting, he will often take the work so that he can pay the bills at the end of the month.

Even the hunting life, encouraged by a successful guaranteed income scheme for trappers, has been monetarized, and many young people now return from the goose hunt with offers to sell their kill to others in the town, not to distribute it freely as the tradition demands. Their elders are horrified. The sharing ethic, the basis of the culture, is in decline.

These fundamental changes are no accident.

For centuries the people of Fort George took much of their food from the whitefish that spawn below the first rapids on the great river (Chisasibi, as it is called in Cree). Thus not only were the first rapids a place of material importance but they had developed over the centuries an immense spiritual significance. When the Cree negotiated with the Quebec government, one of their first demands was that the LG1 dam be moved further up river from its proposed site on the first rapids. At first, the government gave in.

But engineers do not give up so easily. The villagers wanted a bridge to connect their island village to the new road, but the Quebec authorities made difficulties. Eventually they came up with a great new idea. Rather than build a bridge, they would relocate the village to the mainland. They would provide the people with $60 million for this relocation. And all they asked in return was permission to build LG1, as originally planned, across the first rapids.

So the deal was struck. The Cree of Fort George, under pressure, sold off this bedrock of their subsistence culture for a new Canadian suburb in the northern wilderness.

Today the first rapids have disappeared beneath a coffer dam. The magnificent rocks on which generations of Fort George people camped while fishing are no more. The contribution of the first rapids to the material, cultural and spiritual well-being of the people is finished. That part of their economy and culture is gone.

Indeed, some of their young men are at work clearing the trees from the area that will be flooded to feed the LG1 powerhouse. They need the money if they're to pay their monthly bills.

So what are we doing? Merely building a dam?

The major purpose of Canada and Quebec in signing the James Bay Agreement was to clear the Indians off the land so that so it can be "developed". In fact, this has been our primary aim in Canada ever since Europeans arrived here. Our methods may be more sophisticated now, the conscience money paid out is much more. But the result is the same. And we are pleased with the way it is working out. The "development" of James Bay has only started. Premier Robert Bourassa is proceeding with grandiose plans --- mad plans, some would say --- for an even larger James Bay project.

There seems to be no stopping him. But that's progress, I guess.

5. A second journalist views the social impacts

(extracted from a series of articles written in The Toronto Star, by Darcy Henton, March 4, 1991. At that time Hydro-Quebec was proposing to build a road north from Chisasibi)

"When Hydro-Quebec completes its 550-kilometre road that will link Kuujjuarapik with the rest of Quebec in 1992, the world --- and several thousand non-native construction workers --- will be at the community's door.

"Mary Shen is fearful that if her people are suddenly flung into the 20th century, the native culture will die a quick and horrible death.

"Everything has changed so fast for us and we're still having problems trying to adapt to all the changes that have happened," says Shen, a 28-year-old Whapmagoostui Cree who teaches English as a second language at the Cree school. "Our people will be very lost as a group. The Cree culture will be assimilated into the dominant culture and we're fighting to prevent that. That's what we're all scared of. Some of us have seen what happened to native communities in the south and we don't want that to happen here. We have to learn our culture and defend it."

"Active Cree woodsmen, unaccustomed to the sedentary urban life, seem to just wither away when they spend more and more time in the village, she says. "If you don't have a job, you are lost," she says. "It seems like you are just wasting your life away."

"Robbie Masty says villagers are still struggling to adapt to living in permanent houses after centuries of nomadic travel. It wasn't until 1940 that Cree in Quebec settled into permanent communities and it wasn't a smooth transition. "People are not prepared," he says. 'they didn't pay their rent and their electricity bills and heating fuel bills were piling up. It was really a problem. Their lives weren't made this way. it's as if we're trying to live in two different worlds. When we lived out in the bush, we didn't have a problem,. Gradually people are moving one step at a time toward the white man's world. But it has to happen slowly."

"If they are trying to replace what we have with something else, it won't work because we weren't made to live that way. Maybe our children will be ready for this kind of world." Cree trapper Elijah George, a 33-year-old father of four whose trapline will be flooded by the development, says non-natives don't have enough of a grasp of native culture to understand their intrinsic bond to the land. "We're not saying this land is ours, but it's where we live," he adds. "People down south don't understand us because our traditions are so different from whites. What we eat, we hunt, and what's what keeps us going. If we have no land to hunt, what are we going to do?"

"Once the Great Whale river is diverted and its flow is diminished by 85 per cent, salt water from Hudson Bay will infiltrate the section of the river from which the village draws its drinking water. The diminished flow will also affect the fish in the river and likely the beluga whales when they come into the river mouth in the spring to feed, natives say.

"Whapmagoostui Cree band chief Robbie Dick says it is easy to see that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages for his people.

"The road will bring cheaper groceries to a community where a dozen eggs sell for $3.15, a two-litre carton of ice cream sells for $6.64, and a 500-gram package of sliced bacon sells for $5. But environmentally and culturally, the cost of the development is much too steep, Dick says,

"Once they flood the land, the only thing they will get out of this area is electricity," he says. "Who benefits from the production of electricity? It is going to make Hydro-Quebec richer and...we'll get some form of compensation, but what is lost will be lost forever."

"....The road and the Hydro project it was built to accommodate brought trade and commerce to Chisasibi, a once-isolated town of nearly 3,000 on the James Bay coast that had been serviced only by barge and plane. It brought cheaper groceries and dry goods, new homes, TVs, video games, VCRs and late-model trucks and cars.
"But it also brought an influx of alcohol and drugs, heavy traffic, non-native hunters and construction workers on the prowl for Indian women --- all of which are viewed as threats to a rapidly fading traditional Indian culture.

"The Chisasibi Cree accepted $225 million in compensation for the road and the project, as well as fishing, hunting and trapping rights and government commitments for programs estimated at $2 billion, but many now believe they got a bad deal. "It's like a visitor coming into your house and then taking it over," says Larry House, 25, spokesperson for the Chisasibi Youth Council.... "People always look at the money we got, but our way of life has been eroded. A lot of things came with the project that we didn't want. This is becoming a non-native community and I don't really like it."

"....(Charlie) Pepabano says that on the surface Chisasibi looks like a vibrant, affluent community that has made tremendous strides as a result of Hydro development in the north. But underneath, it is a community in peril. "What you see out this window is not the whole picture," he says, gesturing towards the subdivisions of modern houses, the hospital, the new arena and the recreation centre with indoor pool that's still under construction. "You don't judge a book by its cover. You have to read between the covers to find out the reality in all this."

"Pepabano says most residents of this modern community --- which except for its abundance of snowmobiles, canoes and backyard teepees could pass for any town in Ontario --- still practice the traditional hunting and trapping lifestyle in the vast wilderness that surrounds them. It remains their life.

"But in the wake of the first phase of the giant James Bay hydro-electric project, whose final stages will be under construction until late this decade, they fear those days are numbered.
"...The Hydro project they tried in vain to block in the1970s has had such a wide-ranging impact on every aspect of their lives, most now believe that the much-heralded settlement they won was hardly compensation at all.

"...In addition to the social problems came horrors no one imagined in 1975 when they signed the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. The Cree were being simultaneously poisoned and washed out into the bay.

"...To make matters worse, the governments that were obligated to provide new Cree infrastructures in accordance with the 1975 agreement lagged very badly in living up to their end of the bargain, says Cree Grand Chief Matthew Coon-Come.

" We did make some progress under the agreement, but everything that we have done has required continued court actions and confrontation," he says.

"In 1986 the auditor-general of Canada reported a $190 million shortfall in implementation of the agreement. Cree communities lacked 100 houses, promised roads were not built, and parts of the 450-page agreement pertaining to economic development and education were not properly implemented, Coon-Come says.

"Not only is government unwilling to live up to its obligations, but it is often unable to do so because of the way the agreement is interpreted and twisted by bureaucrats," complains the youthful chief.