As It Happens

Commemorating 25th anniversary of historic Odeyak voyage

Before Idle No More, there was the journey of the Odeyak. It was 25 years ago today, on Earth Day, that 60 Cree and Inuit people from northern Quebec paddled a canoe called the Odeyak down the Hudson River into Manhattan to protest a hydroelectric dam project in Quebec.
The Odeyak, a hybrid canoe, was used by Cree and Inuit to paddle into Manhattan on April 22, 1990, drawing international attention to their opposition to the Great Whale hydroelectric dam in Quebec. (Photo courtesy the Cree Cultural Institute)

Before Idle No More, there was the journey of the Odeyak. It was 25 years ago today, on Earth Day, that 60 Cree and Inuit people from northern Quebec paddled a hybrid canoe called the Odeyak along the Hudson River into Manhattan to protest a hydroelectric dam project in Quebec.

The voyage of the Odeyak brought international attention to their protest of the dam. The  project was denounced by The New York Times and TIME magazine among other media outlets that picked up their story.

The development of the Great Whale hydroelectric dam was supposed to start in March of 1989. It was the second phase of the James Bay project.

Matthew Mukash was among the paddlers, and he said arriving in New York after a six week journey was very emotional.

"The Odeyak was put onto a stage at Times Square and it became the centre of attention for the media. And our leadership was given the opportunity to speak before a crowd of about 10,000 people at Times Square, so that part was very emotional for all of us," Mukash tells As It Happens host, Carol Off.

"Of course it was a big undertaking because here you had a deal that was signed by the State of New York and Quebec that was about $17 billion that you wanted to kill. The strategy was to kill the market for electricity in the United States because that's where Hydro-Quebec wanted to sell the power," says Mukash.

New York eventually pulled out of their contract with Quebec, and the dam was later cancelled by the province.

Mukash attibutes the protesters' success to their advice from elders.

"When we left for New York we had a number of meetings with our elders. And they said, 'you go down there, but don't break anything, don't protest.' They said if you want to capture the hearts of the people you have to put the words that will capture them and their hearts enough to stand with you."

Mukash says although the government of Quebec was initially upset that the dam project was cancelled, the event actually helped to improve the relationship between the Cree and the province.

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