North·In Depth

Stories from the trenches: Adapting a Cree way of life in the wake of a mega-project

Quebec Hydro and Cree of Northern Quebec look for ways to help some cope with changes on the land thanks to hydro-electric projects.

Some Northern Quebec Cree struggle to adapt to changes on the land following river projects

The Rupert River gate is located 314 kilometres from the river's estuary. Hydro electric projects in Northern Quebec create challenges for some traditional ways of life. (Hydro Quebec )

It's hard to know exactly why the geese arrive — or do not arrive — for the spring hunt.

If it's cold, the birds stay south longer and fly high in the sky on their way back north. If it's wet, the grass the geese like to feed on aren't as plentiful, so they fly elsewhere.

But when a major development project is added to the mix, predicting how and why the birds and animals come or don't come, and what to do about it, takes on a whole different — and sometimes painful — dimension.

That's the reality of the Cree of northern Quebec.

Hydro development has been part of the landscape since the 1970s, when the provincial government moved ahead with the massive James Bay hydroelectric project.

One of the more recent projects is the Rupert River Diversion near Nemaska, located about 1,900 kilometres north of Montreal, completed in 2012. More than 70 per cent of the natural flow of the Rupert River is diverted north to a power generating station, as part of the much larger Eastmain 1-A and Rupert River Diversion Hydropower Project. 

The family of Dennis Saganash works during this year's goose break. (Submitted by Dennis Saganash)

Hunting and traditional ways affected

"[The Cree and Hydro Quebec] have made an effort to try and understand one another," said Brian Craik, a Cree-appointed representative who sits on the Rupert River Water Management Board. 
Brian Craik is Cree-appointed representative who sits on the Rupert River Water Management Board. (COMEX)

The board manages what is left of the river's flow to preserve fish populations and habitat, as well as to help protect the ecology of the area and its traditional use by the Cree people.

At times, the different parts of that mandate seem at odds, especially in the spring, when fish spawning cycles clash with one of the most important holidays on the Cree calendar — Goose Break.

"[The goose hunt] has declined quite dramatically since the diversion," said John Henry Wapachee, a Nemaska hunter, and the community's representative on a monitoring committee set up to track the impacts of the project and to help hunters adapt.

Twice a year the gates on the Rupert River are opened to mimic spring and fall runoff. In the spring that happens right in the middle of the Goose Break holiday, in early May.

"It has an impact not only on our hunting activities, but also it does have a psychological impact for us" Wapachee said.

"It's quite emotional at times where we can't continue or can't seem to enjoy the area as much as we [have] enjoyed it."

For the last five years, Nemaska hunters have asked Hydro Quebec for a delay of about a week in the spring opening of the gates, to improve the chances the geese will come. But Hydro Quebec says that could put fish stocks at risk.

"We understand the concerns of land users… We know Goose Break is very important in the Cree tradition," said Mathieu Boucher, manager of Aboriginal affairs at Hydro Quebec.

"But the [water level increase] was designed using many years of data and in close collaboration with Cree entities and Cree land users," he said.
Geese and bannock roasting over a fire. ( Submitted by Fred Tomatuk)

'This is something that needs to be addressed' 

Part of the problem for hunters is the exact date of the gate openings and quantity of the water varies from year to year, and they rely on a network of boards, committees and communication protocols that sometimes work and sometimes don't.

This year for example, the gates on two rivers — the Lamare and Nemaska  — that feed into the Rupert River were opened earlier than normal. Some hunters weren't notified in time and their spring goose hunt was flooded out.

"These things happen," said Brian Craik, who characterizes the relations between Cree and Hydro for this project as very good overall.

"But the other question is: how often do they happen? If it happens often, then it won't be a good relationship with Hydro Quebec."

These are the stories from the trenches of mega-project management and mitigation.

A sunset over Cree territory. Cree hunters are dealing with changes they are experiencing on the land and the loss of the social aspects of the Goose hunt. (Submitted by Dennis Saganash)

For Brian Craik, it is a question of "sorting out the relationship with Hydro Quebec". He says he will push for the Lamare and Nemaska Rivers to be put under the Rupert River Management Board, something not the case now.

For John Henry Wapachee, Cree hunters need help to come to terms with the changes they are experiencing on the land and the loss of the social aspects of the goose hunt.

"As much as you try to ease the pain or the damage on a person's life, [it remains], especially the social or the psychological impact," Wapachee said.

"This is something that needs to be addressed," he said. "So far we've been preoccupied with other stuff...There are wounded soldiers walking around, not only in the trapline, but also in the communities."