The James Bay Cree region covers the coast and the drainage systems of Hudson Bay in Canada. It extends from James Bay’s section of Lac Guillaume-Delisle to the Rupert’s Bay. The number of people occupying the area is approximately 12, 000 people. The whole region is under the Quebec government. There are the Coasters (Wiinibeyk Iiyuu) and in land people (Nuuchcimiihc Iiyuu) who are the main occupants of the region. They anciently depended on maritime sea mammals and fur trade for survival respectively. The inland Cree were also small-scale hunters who were in organized groups targeting the winter period to hunt woodland caribou, hare, ptarmigan and beaver for livelihood (Sproule-Jones et. al 30).
The Cree people had strong beliefs in the power of animal spirits and would occasionally have feasts to revere them. This was a counter festivity for the fear of the cannibalistic windigo. However, in the mid 1800s, the Anglican missionaries who visited the James Bay Cree’s Fort George were instrumental in instilling the culture of Christianity into the Cree people. They made them believe that Christianity was related to an unknown god of the Cree referred to as Manitou. The Cree people liked the idea of Christianity since they felt that Manitou who was their ultimate god of animal spirits was linked to the Christian God. Consequently, Christianity was spread especially at the Great Whale river region. This was a developmental stage in the transmission of Christian theology across the regions of James Bay Cree. The subsequent period that saw tremendous transformation in the social-economic organization of the James Bay Cree was after the Second World War. The beginning of the 1950s saw the intervention of the government to modernize and develop the north part of the James Bay Cree region. The developments included the building of a railway line, mining grounds, paper mills and roads. However, the Cree did not benefit much from these projects since they were not French-speaking people and the project targeted the French-speaking borderline towns (Miller 223).
In the early 1970s, James Bay Cree faced a significant turning point when the Quebec government announced the introduction of the hydroelectric project without consulting the Cree. The project was aimed at developing the northern part of Quebec in the Baie-James region. At that time, there were eight communities with different cultural histories who got fearful that the project would spoil most parts of the land in the region as a result of floods. Despite their diverse and dissimilar cultures, they all came into a consensus and stood their ground against the project. This was technically the beginning of the union among the different communities in the north region, which was as a result of lobbying against the project. Consequently, the James Bay Cree got the identity as one community since the communities acted as one (Sproule-Jones et. al 33).
The Agreements between the Quebec government and the Cree and their impacts
The resistance from the northern people against the hydroelectric project led to the formation of “The Quebec Association of Indians”. This association won an injunction in 1973 and ceased the construction of the project until the government negotiated with the First Nations. In effect, the Grand Council of the Crees was formed to protect the villagers in the northern part of James Bay Cree against violation of their rights as the negotiations between them and the government of Quebec and Canada ensued (Miller 245).
In November 1975, the representatives from the northern region signed an agreement with the government of Quebec and Canada called “James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement”. This agreement unambiguously stipulated the rights of the native people in relation to the hydroelectric project. However, this treaty was a recipe for subsequent conflicts in other communities, which had the same grievances as the north region. The good part of the treaty was the advantage of compensation in terms of money for the use of the Cree’s people land, improvement of the health sector and giving a superior autonomy of the region. The objective of the Cree people was not to auction their land out to the Canadians and get financial benefits but improve their economy at the same time maintain their cultures and traditions. This was a reason for the major rift between the governments of Quebec and Canada and the indigenous people. The governments’ aim was to use the land and develop it according to their selfish desires. This implied that the project would still cause floods in the region and the native people would be helpless since the construction of the project would be abiding by the treaty’s tenets (Sproule-Jones et. al 33).
In addition, the governments of Quebec and Canada defaulted in giving the financial compensation, which compelled the Cree to use their own means to improve the region. The Cree had to invest in the building of better sewerage and water drainage systems since they would not survive in a flooded region with poor sewerage system. This was the first phase of the hydroelectric project and it was completed in 1986 (Miller 237).
According Ronal Niezen, the government of Quebec announced the Grand-Baleine hydroelectric project in the same year, which was the second phase of the project (30). This project was aimed at increasing three power plants and flooding more land in the region. It offered employment opportunities to the Cree but also had adverse effects on the ecological system. The environment suffered degradation occasioned by the floods, which killed the source of livelihood for the natives who were fishermen and hunters. The fish died and the land where the hunters carried their activities was too flooded to hunt since the animals hibernated considerably. Due to the public outcry on the adverse impacts of the project on the environment, the government of Quebec terminated the project in 1994.
Consequently, in 2002 the Cree and the government of Quebec signed a new agreement that gave respect confines to both parties. This was an overhaul of the series of agreements that both parties had signed over the years, and it propelled the new construction of the James Bay Cree hydroelectric project. It is through this agreement that in 2004, the parties signed another agreement for the Rupert River diversion, to protect the environment even with the fresh construction of the project. The agreement of Rupert River Division was approved in 2007 and the construction continued (Miller 239).
Impacts of the James Bay Project
In the 1970s, the effects of mega projects like the James Bay Hydroelectric Project were occasionally considered by the society. However as the project developed, its diverse impact on the society was under immense pressure from various entities.
The project was the first of its kind to be constructed in the sub-Arctic as it could generate much electricity as fifteen nuclear power plants combined. However, its impacts were detrimental as they include the displacement of the nearby communities and disruption of the fragile ecosystem. Its impacts on the culture, health and well-being of the communities, Land and infrastructure were under immense scrutiny. The introduction of high levels of mercury to the food supply chain of the locality was also a major issue. This problem has been augmented by the political issues derived from the project’s importance to the economic growth of Quebec and the purchase of almost 10% of the electricity produced to the U.S. The project, which was termed as “the project of the century”, has transformed to “issue of the century.” The project incorporates a number of factors that introduced various challenges that have transformed the outlook of the society (Niezen 54).
Impacts on culture, health and well-being
Many of the populace in James Bay Cree locality feel that the lives of their parents and grandparents as being very traditional in the modern world. This is due to the greater changes experienced during the century. The James Bay Project has had a tremendous effect on the culture and tradition of the Cree community. The project has failed to uphold and respect the traditions of the natives. When the project was first introduced, the government did not inform the communities that lived in the affected area, Inuit and Crees. Therefore, this was an injustice to the legitimacy of the locality, traditions and economies and consequently forcing them to adapt to an inferior culture (Martin87).
The communities’ ways of life have been transformed by the James Bay hydroelectric project. Despite receiving millions of dollars as compensation, the communities have made it clear that the project by destructing their land has changed their lives and severely damaged their communities. The Northern Quebec Cree depend on the environment for their source of livelihood, fish for food and as a source of employment. The introduction of mercury to the water has severely affected the community’s tradition (Fixico 392).
The development of infrastructure in the area has introduced abominable activities and behaviors, and equally affected the culture of the Cree people. The development of modern roads has paved way for the importation and consequently the introduction of alcohol and other harmful products to the society. The Cree hunting grounds have also been destroyed as a result of the hydroelectric project. Some of the hunting areas have been destroyed for the accommodation of reservoirs. This has affected the community as the only source of living has been disrupted especially when the jobs, which were to materialize due to the project, have not come forth (MacDowell 209).
The locality is thus struggling to cope with the difficulties and changes. Almost 50% of the population in Chisasibi town is unemployed while alcoholism, wife beating and teenage pregnancy are rampant. The shift from consumption of natural foods to refined ones has caused many diseases as diabetes affects a high percentage of the people as a result.
The environmental effects of the first phase of the James Bay Project have evident as the high methyl-mercury levels in water have been registered. Although the manner of methyl-mercury production follow natural causes the construction of the project’s reservoirs has resulted in an increment to the levels of Methyl-mercury contamination. Hence, this has detrimental effects to the populace, as fish is a major source of food for the community. Consequently, this affects the fish. Since the first phase of the project, research indicates that five percent of the elderly population has a surplus of 25 mg/kg in their hair (Fixico 396).
According to Laurel MacDowell, an analysis on the various species found in the Smallwood Reservoir indicates that there was a very high level of the substance (209). Moreover, the newly constructed reservoirs have been affected significantly. The Innu value fish as their traditional food and thus very it is significant to their culture and identity. Traditional food is associated with confidence, physical fitness and satisfaction. Therefore, the effects of the project on the traditional fishery have had a significant psychological effect on the communities. Therefore, introduction of methyl-mercury levels in the traditional activities has had a medical and psychological impact to the community’s way of life (MacDowell 209).
The greater control of the project by the Cree government has significant benefits to the society. The ability to enforce political, administrative and legal actions has enhanced the autonomy of the various communities. The future phases of the hydroelectric project are likely threats even though they have been abandoned. Even though the communities have come through the turbulent events of the past three decades, the relationship with the government remains a problem. However, the current economic and political sovereignty and progress of the community provides a development phase in relationship between the government and the Cree communities.
Fixico, Donald L. Treaties with American Indians: An Encyclopedia of Rights, Conflicts, and Sovereignty. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2008. Print.
MacDowell, Laurel S. An Environmental History of Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012. Internet resource.
Martin, Thibault, and Steven M. Hoffman. Power Struggles: Hydro Development and First Nations in Manitoba and Quebec. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2008.
Miller, J R. Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009. Print.
Niezen, Ronald. Public Justice and the Anthropology of Law. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.
Sproule-Jones, Mark, Carolyn Johns, and B T. Heinmiller. Canadian Water Politics: Conflicts and Institutions. Montréal [Québec: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008. Internet resource.