More communication needed after false alarm leaves Cree community in shock, say residents

The call for better communication comes after a false alarm in September which left the people of Chisasibi panicking.

'It's the responsibility of not only our leaders ... but our people,' says worried father

The La Grande complex of hydroelectric dams, upstream from the community of Chisasibi, Que., generates 50 per cent of the power produced in Quebec. (Hydro-Québec)

Some residents of a northern Quebec community are calling on local Cree leaders and Hydro-Québec to work together so families can feel more secure, in light of a false alarm last month that left the people of Chisasibi panicking.

Bertie Wapachee, 48, says it's always taken an effort to push away worrisome thoughts about the risks of living downstream from Hydro-Québec's La Grande complex, one of the largest series of dams in the world.

He and others who call Chisasibi home are finding it increasingly tough to pretend everything is OK.

"It's not something we can leave behind or laugh about," said Wapachee, who was in Gatineau, Que., with his wife when they heard on the evening of Sept. 1 that the dam had broken and an evacuation order was in place.

It was after the community's chief confirmed with Hydro-Québec that no dam had broken, and there was no emergency, that it was determined someone had spread a false rumour.

"It wasn't a joking matter in the 30 minutes I was trying to find my kids," Wapachee said.

Bertie Wapachee, left, and his wife were in Gatineau, Que., when false rumours of a dam breach in their home community of Chisasibi spread quickly on social media. (Submitted by Bertie Wapachee)

He said children were thrown into the backs of pickup trucks and elders woke up in the middle of the night to panic and uncertainty.

Several residents in Chisasibi, about 10 kilometres from James Bay, described a scene in which people were seen driving recklessly as they tried to gas up their vehicles, collect loved ones and get out of town.

Residents say there was near chaos before the chief went on local radio to say there had been no breach of the dam.

Wapachee is vowing not to let the issue go. He said Chisasibi residents need to engage in a conversation that will hopefully result in a better evacuation plan.

He would also like to see the community and Hydro-Québec conduct a full drill.

"It's the responsibility of not only our leaders … but our people to get something done," he said.

Better communication needed

Davey Bobbish, chief of the Cree Nation of Chisasibi, says the last time they received information about the how the dams are built, and how they are monitored, was more than 15 years ago. He says that needs to change.

"With social media, information spreads like wildfire," said Bobbish. "We have to re-explain to people, especially the young people in our community. This is something we haven't done in a while."

Bobbish said a consultant will be in the community next week to rework Chisasibi's emergency preparedness plan.

Hydro-Québec's Indigenous relations and projects adviser, Luc Duquette, says it's clear that more communication with residents is needed.

"I think it's obvious to all of us that there is a great need for information and education on how dams are built and how they are monitored and how their safety is ensured." said Duquette,

He said an internal investigation at Hydro-Québec is underway and there are plans to conduct a debriefing with the community this fall.