'The way it should be done': NYC mayor sends fact-finding mission to Indigenous communities in northern Quebec

Delegates from the New York City mayor’s office are on a 13-day tour, travelling to some of the most remote parts of the province to meet Cree, Innu and Inuit leaders, to better understand the social and environmental impacts of hydroelectric exports.

Delegates from Bill de Blasio's office on 13-day tour of Inuit, Cree, Innu territory to discuss hydro exports

Bill Namagoose, executive director of the Grand Council of Crees of Eeyou Istchee, said the New York City delegation tour of Indigenous communities that stand to be affected by hydroelectric exports 'is the way it should be done.' (CBC)

Indigenous leaders in Quebec are welcoming representatives of New York City who want to hear what they have to say before negotiating to purchase more power from Hydro-Québec.

Three delegates from the New York City mayor's office are on a 13-day tour, travelling to some of the most remote regions of the province to meet Cree and Inuit leaders, to better understand the social and environmental impacts of hydroelectric infrastructure. 

Their visit is "the way it should be done," Bill Namagoose,  executive director of the Grand Council of the Crees, told Quebec AM.

"We were pleased with that gesture," he said. "It's never been done before."

"I think they were surprised; I think they learned a lot, and they listened to us," said Namagoose. "We welcome the fact that they're coming here and want to understand the human rights impacts."

Although formal negotiations haven't yet started, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in April his administration's intention to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the city by 40 per cent by 2030 — largely by importing "zero-emission Canadian hydroelectricity."

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to reduce his city's greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent in the next decade, largely by importing Canadian hydroelectricity. (Hans Pennink/Associated Press)

Mark Chambers, director of the New York City mayor's office of sustainability, told Quebec AM it's important that everyone who would be impacted by such a deal be given the chance to speak for themselves.

"I think it's essential when we look at any deal that New York City would be a part of — especially one as important as a deal that would help us to combat the climate crisis dramatically — that we make sure we're hearing from all parties involved, but also hearing from them firsthand," he said.

Not having to go south a first for Innu leader

The delegation visited the Innu community of Ekuanitshit, on Quebec's North Shore, last weekend.

Chief Jean Charles Pietacho said having representatives from New York City in his community was a first for him.

Pietacho said typically, members of his community have to travel south to make their opinions heard, so having officials from the Big Apple come to Ekuanitshit is greatly appreciated.

Innu Chief Jean Charles Pietacho, seen here in Montreal in 2015, told CBC the visit by the New York City delegation is the first time he can remember officials from the south coming to his community rather than Innu leaders having to travel south to make their voices heard. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Among those on the fact-gathering mission is New York City's leader of energy policy and infrastructure, as well as its manager of energy purchasing, and an official from the sustainability office who has a background as a human rights investigator.

"We wanted to make sure that all of their skills complemented each other," said Chambers, "but also that we showed respect to those they would be visiting by making sure that we were sending officials from the New York City government who were high-ranking and who had the ability to make recommendations upon their return."

Relationship dates back to 1990 Odeyak voyage

Namagoose said he has known de Blasio for almost 30 years, since 1990.

That's when 60 Inuit and Crees from northern Quebec paddled a boat they named an "odeyak" — half-canoe, half-kayak  — more than 2,000 kilometres, dragging it by dogsled across the ice on frozen James Bay, by road and by river to New York City, stopping in cities and in First Nations communities along the way to protest against the proposed Great Whale dam project.

Former Cree grand chief Matthew Coon Come speaks to people gathered in Manhattan after the odeyak's arrival. Cree and Inuit from Northern Quebec travelled more than 2,000 km over five weeks, by dogsled on the frozen bay, by road and by river, in a campaign against the proposed damming of the Great Whale River. (Cree Cultural Institute)

The project, which would have adversely affected both the Cree community of Whapmagoostui and the Inuit village of Kuujjuarapik at the mouth of the Great Whale River, was not feasible without export contracts to the U.S. 

The Cree and Inuit opposition worked: In 1992, Mario Cuomo, then-governor of New York, backed out of a contract to buy power from Hydro-Québec, choosing to go the route of energy conservation instead.

Namagoose said he's glad to see consultations being done differently this time around.

Hydro-Québec was not involved in planning the New York City delegate trip, and the public utility said formal negotiations with the American city have not yet begun.

But Namagoose said he is nevertheless concerned that any potential deal would lead to the construction of more dams and hydroelectric infrastructure.

"As far as the Cree are concerned, we have no appetite for more hydroelectric in our territory," he said.  

Hydro-Québec maintains the necessary infrastructure is already in place, and building new dams in order to generate more power for export would not be necessary.


With files from Quebec AM


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