The project raised controversy for its effect on the Aboriginal population and the environment. The project flooded 11 500 km2 of wilderness land that was home to Cree and Inuit. The flooding also created mercury contamination in fish, as mercury was released from rotting vegetation in the reservoirs, and contributed to the deaths of an estimated 10 000 caribou. Announced by Québec Premier Robert BOURASSA, it was contested by the Cree, who had not even been notified. In 1975 the Cree surrendered their LAND CLAIMS for $225 million (see JAMES BAY AND NORTHERN QUÉBEC AGREEMENT), retaining special hunting and fishing rights. The village of Fort George (pop 2373) at the mouth of La Grande Rivière was uprooted and relocated upstream. It is now called Chisasibi. Eastmain (pop 356) now lies in a saltwater estuary, as Rivière Eastmain was reduced to a trickle. Vast areas of wilderness were inundated and forests incinerated in an attempt to clear debris.
Phase II of the project began in 1989 with the development of LG-1 at the mouth of La Grande Rivière where it empties into James Bay. During construction of the second phase, Hydro-Québec proposed an additional project on the Great Whale River, a 21-year project worth $17 billion. James Bay II consists of the Grande Baleine (Great Whale) Complex and other dams on the Great Whale, Nottaway, and Rupert rivers. Opposition to the project by the Cree was more vehement than it had been to the original project, which had adversely affected their way of life. Their protests were largely ineffectual until 1992. Much of the power from James Bay II was to be sold to the states of New York, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont in the United States. In 1992, then-governor Mario Cuomo of New York directed the New York Power Authority to cancel its contract with Hydro-Québec in favour of energy conservation and to purchase power from other sources. Due to the lack of a market for its hydropower, completion of the Great Whale Complex was suspended indefinitely.
In 2002, the Québec government and the Grand Council of the Cree reached an agreement that opened the way for completion of the original project. An agreement reached in 2004 ended litigation between them and allowed discussions to progress concerning the diversion of one of Québec's largest rivers, the Rupert River, in a $4 billion project.
Together, James Bay I and II diverted and dammed 9 free-flowing rivers and flooded an area the size of Belgium. It had considerable impact on the Aboriginal population and the environment, although the extent of environmental harm is a subject for debate. Certainly a pristine area was greatly changed. The benefit of the project was the pollution-free production of a significant portion of Québec's electricity.
Author JAMES MARSH
Links to Other Sites
James Bay Project and the Cree
A CBC feature about the political, social, and economic issues concerning the James Bay hydroelectric project and the James Bay Cree.
The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement
See the full text of the The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. From the website for the Grand Council of the Crees.