September 25, 2007

THE GROWING FUROR OVER THE FUTURE OF 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- determination. 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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