Hydroelectric Development in Eeyou-James Bay

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Editor’s Note: This post is the third in a series titled “Dam Nation: Hydroelectric Developments in Canada.”

James Bay is a place that evokes different histories, different perspectives of nationhood, and a good dose of cultural misunderstanding. Like the term “Indian”, its appellation originates in geographical confusion: the “bay” in question is in fact a 350 km-long gulf at the southern tip of Hudson Bay.

One winter (1631-1632) spent on Charlton Island by the British explorer Thomas James (1593-1635), who was looking for the Northwest Passage, was sufficient for his name to come to designate the “Bay” and the nearly 336 000 km2 region east of it where Quebec’s largest rivers flow. When the young Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa set his sights north of the 49th parallel to fulfil his 1970 leadership campaign promise of creating 100,000 jobs, these rivers – La Grande, Eastmain, Rupert, Broadback, Nottaway – would forever become intertwined with key historical events in the province; events that were the tail of the bright comet of the “Quiet Revolution” when Francophones sought to reject the dominance of the English while also loosening the grip of the Catholic Church. During this pivotal period, they would embark on a quest for sovereignty that took many forms and where nature – water in particular – has played a key role.

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Giant’s Staircase Spillway at the Robert-Bourassa Reservoir

If the St. Lawrence River was the backbone of French and British colonial incursion into the American continent, the La Grande River, similarly, supported the Liberal party’s pursuit of an “economic sovereignty” for the Québécois. The latter, it was hoped, would counter the appeal of the territorial secession from Canada advocated by René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois. “It will not be said that we will live poorly on such a rich land” boasted Robert Bourassa in 1971 as he announced the so-called “project of the century.” With these words, he was opening a new colonial front in Quebec, where the modern tools of science, technology and water engineering would replace the hatchet and plough of the old-time défricheurs (settlers).

Enter the hydro-pioneer on the national stage: the Québécois were about to write a new chapter of their national/territorial epic.

Forty-five years and many governments later, James Bay is home to an extensive network of dams, powerhouses, reservoirs, pylons, roads, diversion channels and energy transportation lines. But it remains, first and foremost, the home of the Eeyouch, the Eastern James Bay Cree, who are not only the majority population of the region, they are also its longest inhabitants.

Against Bourassa’s James Bay as an untapped, resource-rich wilderness where water must be channelled through the turbines of modernity, one of the Eeyouch’s biggest challenges has been to bring the region into view as a cultural homeland – Eeyou Istchee – where rivers and watersheds are woven into their own practices, knowledge, nationhood and historical becoming. The signing of Canada’s first modern treaty in 1975, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA), was one step toward that vision, but in no way did it halt Quebec’s appetite for building large dams on Northern rivers.


The Eeyouch’s legal struggle to stop the Great Whale (Grande-Baleine) project in Hudson Bay during the 1990s is well known as it gained attention on the international stage. Like the JBNQA, their success in halting the project constitutes but an incremental step toward recognition of their indigenous rights. In February 2002, they signed what is commonly referred to as the “Peace of the Braves” (Agreement concerning a new relationship between le Gouvernement du Québec and the Crees of Québec).

In its preamble, the accord states that: “[B]oth the Cree Nation and the Québec Nation agree to place emphasis in their relationship on those aspects that unite them as well as on their common desire to continue the development of Northern Québec and the self-fulfilment of the Cree nation.” This mutual recognition of nationhood constitutes a giant step in Cree-Quebec relations, although not so much because Quebec explicitly recognizes the Cree nation: given the colonial incursion into their territories since the 1970s, it is the Eeyouch who, undoubtedly, had to travel the farthest distance to come to recognize the Québécois as a national entity with whom they could share their cultural homeland.

On that basis, the agreement has bolstered further autonomy and a firmer hold on regional governance for the Eeyouch, an evolution that has led to shared structures of territorial management in what is now officially, since 2014, the “Eeyou Istchee – Baie-James” municipality, where Cree and Jamesian (white Francophones in majority) inhabitants of the region have come together to form Quebec’s first co-managed municipality. However, some would say that rivers, once again, were a bargaining chip in these latest gains by the Eeyouch. The 2002 agreement gave the green light to a new phase of hydro development in Eeyou Istchee, this time on the Eastmain and the Rupert rivers.

Rupert River
Rupert River

A separate accord, the Boumhounan agreement, details the remedial measures, community benefits, consultation and participation procedures as well as the joint Eeyou and Québécois structures and coordinating bodies that would carry the environmental and social impact assessment of the Eastmain 1-A/Rupert project. Unlike the first phase of dam building in Eeyou Istchee, hunters and trappers, as well as other individuals with traditional knowledge of the affected areas, were consulted at every stage of the project.

In addition to the impacts of the new infrastructures on fish, wildlife, water quality and human health, the loss of cultural heritage – particularly on the Rupert River, the historical transportation route of the fur trade’s “Canoe Brigades” – was to be an integral part of remedial and compensation measures, as detailed in the Nadoshtin agreement.

While the sum of these agreements indicates that the balance of power has shifted in some parts of Northern Quebec, other lines of division have appeared in the social body: many Eeyouch expressed discontent that the Grand Council of the Crees negotiated the terms of the “Peace of the Braves” – including the transformation of two more rivers, one of them highly patrimonial – without prior and proper consultation with the nine communities.

Manicouagan Reservoir

Although a referendum was held before the final agreement was signed, many community members felt that alternatives modes of energy production, including wind and solar power, were never up for discussion. This reminds us that the long-standing rift between the Eeyouch and the Québécois when it comes to hydro development does not in fact run so neatly between two homogenous and distinct nations. Alliances and disagreements flow on both sides of the large dam building debates, and also affect other indigenous communities in Quebec. With the James Bay region and Cree-Quebec negotiations occupying centre stage, it is easy to forget that the Innu were the first indigenous people to meet Quebec’s hydro colonialism head on: during the 1960s, Quebec’s first large-scale hydro project was built on the Manicouagan, Outrages, and Bersimis rivers, all of them situated in the North Shore region on Innu ancestral lands (Nitassinan).

Like the Eeyouch, the Innu filed a global land claims but have yet to reach a settlement after more than thirty years of proceedings and negotiations. In the meantime, the Peribonka River (located in the Lac-Saint-Jean region) has undergone several phases of water engineering led by both private and governmental interests, the latest being the Peribonka IV dam which began producing electricity in 2008. Development on Innu lands continues apace with four dams presently being built on the Romaine River in the Lower North Shore.


Lastly, it is important to mention that – even though it represents a milestone for the Eeyouch – the JBNQA has negatively impacted other communities, notably the Anishnaabe, Atikamekw, Innu, and Wendat, due to territorial overlaps. All in all, large dam building in Quebec has affected directly or indirectly nearly half of the province’s First Nations, including the Inuit.

Given the complicated social and political terrain in which large-scale hydro projects have unfolded in Quebec, why is the province still investing so much economic, environmental and human capital into building them, especially when other energy producing technologies are available?

Quebec’s continued commitment to large dams stands in sharp contrast with comparable economically rich countries, which are opting for more sustainable, less environmentally disruptive technologies. Studies demonstrate that Quebec’s energy needs are being met with existing structures. In addition, public opinion in the province generally opposes the irreversible transformation of patrimonial rivers to generate profit via the sale of megawatts to the U.S. and other provinces.

Part of an explanation lies in the fact that the motivator behind this policy approach is more cultural and political than economic. Large dams are symbols and, in Quebec, these structures express the Québécois’ territorial ambition to extend its cultural and political influence to the northern regions of the province, regardless of the fact that these are indigenous homelands. In that sense, the intercultural dialogue that begun in the 1970s still has a long way to go before more equitable – that is, environmentally and socially sustainable – energy policies can begin to emerge in Quebec.


Agreement concerning a new relationship between le Gouvernement du Québec and the Crees of Québec, on line : http://www.mri.gouv.qc.ca/en/pdf/Cris.pdf.

Carlson, Hans M., Home Is the Hunter : The James Bay Cree and Their Land (Vancouver, UBC Press, 2008).

Cohen, Barri, “Technological Colonialism and the Politics of Water ,” Cultural Studies, 1.8, 1994, p. 33-51.

Convention de la Baie James et du Nord québécois et conventions complémentaires (Québec, Publications du Québec, 1998).

Desbiens, Caroline, Power from the North : territory, identity and the culture of hydroelectricity in Quebec (Vancouver, UBC Press, 2013).

Grand Conseil des Cris du Québec, Never without Consent : James Bay Crees Stand against Forcible Inclusion into an Independent Quebec (Toronto, ECW Press, 1998).

Hornig, James (ed.), Social and Environmental Impacts of the James Bay Hydroelectric Project (Montréal and Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999).

Koutouki, Konstantia, Land rights in a hydroelectric era: impact assessment of the James Bay dam project (Canada) (Americas Eco-health Management Project, Centre for International Sustainable Development Law (CISDL)), www.cisdl.org/projects.html.

Massell, David, Quebec Hydropolitics: The Peribonka Concessions of the Second World War (Montréal and Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011).

Mulrennan, Monica, “Great Whale : Lessons from a Power Struggle,” A Casebook of Environmental Issues in Canada (New York: Wiley and Sons, 1998), p. 15-31.

Salisbury, Richard, A Homeland for the Cree: Regional Development in James Bay, 1971-1981 (Montreal and Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986).

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Caroline Desbiens

Professeure, Chaire de recherche du Canada en patrimoine et tourisme autochtone, Département de géographie, Université Laval


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