September 25, 2007

hydroelectric development in the James Bay area in
northern Quebec seems to be emerging as a microcosm of
many of the tensions developing in the larger debate about
the constitutional future of Canada. The provincially-owned
company, Hydro-Quebec, plans to flood tens of thousands of
square miles of aboriginal lands in order to produce electric-
ity for export. In the fight over the second phase of the
project, the movement for native self-determination is on a
collision course with the movement for Qudbecois self-
The northern two-thirds of the province, where much of
its hydro-power, timber and mineral wealth lies, constitutes
a key to the economic viability of an independent Quebec.
But most of this territory was only ceded to Quebec by the
federal government in 1898 and 1912. (Previously the land
was sold by the Hudson's Bay Company to the Dominion of
Canada in 1869, and became part of the Canadian Northwest
Territories.) Assembly of First Nations leaderOvideMercredi
insists that this territory-inhabited almost exclusively by
Cree Indians and Inuit, and in which the second language is
English-will not form part of an independent Quebec.
The James Bay controversy tests the world-view of Cree
and Inuit hunters against the world-view of predominantly
white technocrats, engineers and financiers. The Crees under
the effective leadership of Matthew Coon-Come have at-
tracted powerful allies, especially among environmentalists
in New England and New York state, which are Hydro-
Quebec's primary export markets. This avant-garde coali-
tion has forced New York governor Mario Cuomo and others
to begin backing away from seemingly completed agree-
ments to purchase Quebec's electricity.
Currently the Cree stand at the cutting edge of native
efforts to retain a base of land and resources sufficient for
their posterity to survive as members of distinct indigenous
societies. No doubt their struggle will increasingly require
that native people look beyond the borders of Canada for
allies in their David and Goliath showdown with Columbus'
spiritual descendants.

Tags: Canada, Cree, hydroelectric dam, indigenous politics, environmental destruction

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