Guest Editorial: The James Bay Hydroelectric Project - Issue of the Century

  • J.I. Linton
Keywords: Cree Indians, Environmental impacts, Environmental protection, Great Whale River Hydroelectric Project, Hydroelectric power, James Bay Project, Socio-economic effects, Sustainable economic development, Inuit, James Bay region, Québec, Nouveau-Québec


... The James Bay project has become a major issue because it involves a number of factors that represent a critical change in our outlook over the past twenty years. The first of these is the growth in popularity and scientific credibility of the environmental movement. Environmental awareness has flowered since the first phase of the James Bay project was begun. The environmental impact of the project was not a matter of great debate in the early '70s and no formal environmental assessment was ever done prior to construction of the first phase. It has only been since the mid-1970s that environmental impact assessments of major government projects have been performed on a regular basis in Canada. A surge in public concern about the state of the environment in the late 1980s came at the time Hydro-Quebec began preparations for the Great Whale phase of the project. As a result, the environmental impacts of the first phase have come under close scrutiny, and many of the concerns expressed by opponents in the 1970s have been substantiated. It has been shown that environmental impacts of the first phase include: methyl mercury contamination of water in reservoirs and downstream rivers and mercury accumulation in fish; reversal of the natural seasonal flow patterns of rivers; conversion of La Grande estuary from a saltwater environment to a freshwater one because of regulated peak flow in winter; changes in water temperatures in affected rivers; loss of wetland productivity; production of greenhouse gases by the decomposition of vegetation in inundated areas; destruction of shoreline and shoreline habitat (creation of dead zones) around reservoirs due to fluctuating water levels; riverbank erosion downstream from dams; and interference with animal migration routes. This presents a far different picture from the one advanced in the past of hydroelectricity as a clean, environmentally safe energy source. A second factor has been the internationalization of environmental issues. ... A third factor is our growing understanding of, and respect for, native peoples. ... Today, the idea of progress is undergoing a massive shift away from material and economic growth for growth's sake and toward what has come to be known as "sustainable development." The James Bay project might have been considered "the project of the century" in an earlier era. However, in the era of sustainable development, it must be regarded as something quite different.