Sustainable Development in the Hudson Bay / James Bay Bioregion

Canadian Arctic Resources Committee

Environmental Committee of Sanikiluaq

Rawson Academy of Aquatic Science

James Bay and Hudson Bay constitute a large, shallow, inland sea connected to the Atlantic Ocean by Hudson Strait and the Labrador Sea, and to the Arctic Ocean by the Foxe Basin, and Fury and Hecla Strait. Currents are strongly affected by influxes of fresh water from rivers and, during the open-water season, by wind stress. Cold saline water enters Hudson Bay and James Bay from the northwest. Less saline surface outflows occur along the eastern shores of James Bay and Hudson Bay north to Hudson Strait.

These two "bays" are the largest bodies of water in the world that seasonally freeze over each winter and become ice-free each summer. In Hudson Bay, the ice cover starts to form in northern areas by late October and continues to grow until a maximum cover is reached at he end of April. Polynya (open water leads in the ice which are known to be important biologically throughout the Arctic) are found predominantly along the north-west and east coasts of Hudson Bay, both coasts of James Bay, and in the vicinity of the Belcher Islands. In James Bay, the ice cover begins to decay in late May, and the area becomes ice-free by the end of July.

The watershed of Hudson Bay and James Bay covers well over one-third of Canada, from southern Alberta to central Ontario to Baffin Island, as well as parts of North Dakota and Minnesota in the United States. The rivers flowing into Hudson Bay and James Bay discharge more than twice the flow of either the Mackenzie or St. Lawrence rivers. The seasonal timing of this freshwater discharge is a major factor governing the productivity and JSC of the region. Hydro developments that change the timing and rate of flow of fresh water may cause changes in:

Approximately 60 species of fish are known to inhabit the estuarine communities of Hudson Bay and James Bay. Fewer species are found toward the North where arctic species predominate. The importance of fish in the domestic economies of this region cannot be understated. Arctic char, whitefish, arctic cod, and other species contribute directly to the domestic fishery, and indirectly to the food chain of marine and terrestrial mammals and birds.

Ringed seals are found on all coasts of James Bay and Hudson Bay, with populations estimated at 61 000 and 455 000 respectively. Bearded seals are present in Hudson Bay, with a population last estimated at 84 000. Harbour seals occur in small numbers at isolated localities along all coasts, while harp seals are found as far south as the Belcher Islands in the summer, but also in small numbers. In Hudson Bay, the main concentration of walrus is at northeastern Coats Island and southeastern Southampton Island where they are found during all seasons, with an estimated summer population of 2000. In the 1950s and 1960s, the walrus population of Foxe Basin and Hudson Bay together was estimated at 8500. They are found on both coasts of Hudson Bay and as far south as the Belcher Islands.

Polar bears, which depend on seals as their main food source, are found on the coasts of Hudson Bay and northern James Bay during the summer and fall, and on the islands of northern James Bay.

 Beluga whales are the main species of whale found in Hudson Bay and James Bay. The most recent report estimates that a population of 8000 to 9000 belugas summer in western Hudson Bay, while a small population summers on the east coast of Hudson Bay. Some belugas use the polynya of north-west Hudson Bay and James Bay in winter. Estuaries, including those affected by existing and proposed hydroelectric developments, are important to belugas as feeding and calving grounds.

 A population of possibly less than 100 bowhead whales inhabits northern Hudson Bay and Hudson Strait, most probably on a year-round basis. The species is endangered and has been protected by international protocols.

 The Hudson Bay and James Bay coasts provide a major migration pathway and a breeding ground for many species of geese and ducks. Approximately 2.5 million lesser snow geese and 200 000 Canada geese use staging areas on the coastal marshes of the Hudson Bay Lowlands during spring and fall migration. In an average year, 1.5 million lesser snow geese use the James Bay coastal areas. The high fertility and productivity of the coastal zone support a wide range of food types which enable reproduction, growth of juveniles, and fattening of all ages prior to the fall migration. Hydro projects could have far-reaching and negative impacts if, for example, breeding waterfowl habitat in Quebec river estuaries was damaged, thereby affecting migratory bird populations wintering in the eastern and southern United States.

 A major breeding colony of lesser snow geese is located just west of Cape Henrietta Maria, with smaller breeding areas located on Akimiski Island near Churchill and in the vicinity of Arviat. Approximately 75 per cent of the global population of Atlantic brant geese are concentrated on the eel grass beds of the Quebec coast and parts of the Ontario coast of James Bay, and almost the entire North American population (up to 320 000) of black scoters use southern James Bay as a staging area. Other waterfowl species that utilize inshore, intertidal and brackish coastal habitats in the Hudson Bay/James Bay bioregion include black duck, pintail, mallard, wigeon, green-winged teal, and scaup. Mergansers and loons make extensive use of offshore water for feeding, and a significant number of common eider pass the winter in James Bay and the Belcher Islands.

Important shorebird species include dunlin, blackbellied plover, golden plover, semi-palmated plover, greater and lesser yellowlegs, sanderlings, four species of sandpiper, whimbrel, and marbled godwit. The coasts of both bays are (or were) used by the endangered (or extinct) eskimo curlew.

Finally, the area of northern Hudson Bay and western Hudson Strait supports the third largest seabird community in the Canadian Arctic, dominated by the thick-billed murre.

 Marine mammals and migratory birds inhabiting Hudson Bay and James Bay are especially at risk from changes to marine and freshwater ecosystems. These ecosystems are subject to stress from toxic metals and chemicals such as mercury and organochlorine compounds already present in the water and the food chain. Further large-scale developments arc likely to compound these stresses when combined with continued loadings of long-range-transported toxic contaminants and probable regional climatic changes or shifts in sea-level caused by global increases in air temperature.

Traditional Use and Occupancy

The Hudson Bay/James Bay bioregion has been occupied by Cree and Inuit people for thousands of years. The Cree occupy the southern part of the region in Manitoba, Ontario, and northern Quebec as far north as Whapmagoostui. Inuit communities are found along the eastern shores of Hudson Bay in Quebec, north from Kuujjuarapik to Ivujivik and Salluit. In the Northwest Territories, Inuit communities extend from Arviat on the western shore of Hudson Bay to Coral Harbour on Southampton Island. The Inuit community of Sanikiluaq is found on the Belcher Islands in south-eastern Hudson Bay, about 100 kilometres from the mouth of the Great Whale River.

 As part of their traditional subsistence economy, the Cree hunt migratory birds, particularly in the spring, as well as terrestrial mammals such as moose. The Cree fish the rivers in the region and trap fur-bearing mammals such as muskrat and beaver. Traditionally, Inuit have focused their harvesting efforts on fish and marine mammals such as seals, walrus, and whales. Some communities also depend heavily on caribou.

 The Cree and Inuit of northern Quebec signed a comprehensive claims agreement (James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement) with the federal and Quebec governments in 1975. The Cree in northern Ontario and northern Manitoba signed Treaty 5, with an adhesion in 1929. The Inuit of Nunavut (the eastern and central region of the Northwest Territories, including Hudson Bay communities) signed an agreement-in-principle with the federal government in 1990 for the settlement of the comprehensive claim of Nunavut Inuit. A final agreement remains to be ratified; however, land selection negotiations between the Inuit and federal government have been concluded for the region.


Hydroelectric Projects and Jurisdictional Responsibility

 The rivers flowing into Hudson Bay and James Bay carry 30 per cent of the total flow of Canada's river systems, or roughly 30 000 cubic metrcs per second. In the past, many engineers and politicians have regarded these north-flowing rivers as "wasting their way to the sea". It is not surprising, therefore, that a prodigious array of hydroelectric projects are in operation, or are planned, to divert or impound this source of renewable energy.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, large-scale hydroelectric projects were announced and constructed in northern Quebec (La Grande Phase I) and northern Manitoba (Churchill-Nelson) with smaller projects in northern Ontario (Moose River basin). In the 1980s and early 1990s, other projects were completed (La Grande Phase 11) and Limestone (northern Manitoba), and new megaprojects were proposed in Manitoba (Conawapa), Quebec (Great Whale, Nottaway-Rupert-Broadback) and Ontario (Moose, Abitibi, Mattagami).

Neither the utilities (all are provincial Crown corporations) nor the provincial governments have addressed the impacts that hydroelectric developments within their jurisdiction may have outside provincial borders. Indeed, the utilities may have no mandate or authority to do so, and certainly provincial governments have little or no authority to apply legislation beyond their borders. The need for new means of co-operation seems obvious.

 The waters of Hudson Bay and James Bay fall within exclusive federal jurisdiction and thus are not part of the territory of adjacent provinces or the Northwest territories. All of the islands of Hudson Bay and James Bay are part of the Northwest Territories and are therefore subject to federal jurisdiction as well (in co-operation with the territorial government in Yellowknife and subject to aboriginal claims). There is a federal responsibility to protect the integrity of marine and fresh water ecosystems of the region and to account for the downstream cumulative impacts of provincial projects. Authority to do so exists (e.g., Canada Water Act and the Fisheries Act). The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has developed the Arctic Marine Conservation Strategy, although its implementation is in doubt. The federal Department of Environment has recognized the need for a study of cumulative environmental impacts and has consulted with federal departments and provincial and territorial governments. At present the initiative is clouded by uncertainty



The James Bay hydroelectric power development in Quebec is one of the largest engineering projects ever undertaken. When all phases are completed, peak power available from the project wi11 be roughly 27 000 megawatts-the equivalent of about 13 Niagara Falls.

Hydro-Quebec is a provincially controlled Crown corporation which plays a major role as an economic engine for the Government of Quebec. The four major phases of the project (one of which is complete) would reshape an area the size of France at a 1990 cost of more than $64 billion, resulting in the world's largest complex of dams and dikes. This immense project has faced growing concern based on a combination of economic, environmental, and social impacts. To date, however, an informed public debate about the James Bay projects has been hampered by a number of factors, including limited availability of information, little assessment of viable alternatives, and uncertainties about the geographic scope and duration of impacts.

Public debate has also been hindered by a lack of organization and focus on the part of non-governmental environmental organizations. This is, in part, a reflection of the fact that most organizations have felt that northern aboriginal groups were best equipped to play the dominant advocacy role. The Grand Council of the Crees, representing the James Bay Cree, and local Inuit communities are opposed to construction of the Great Whale phase of the development, on which some preliminary work has already begun. Makivik Corporation, representing all of the Inuit of northern Quebec, is negotiating with the Quebec government for a measuare of control over the Great Whale project (which lies partly within Inuit territory) as well as for self-government. Should these negotiations fail, Makivik may oppose the megaproject as well.

 Methylmercury contamination caused by flooding o[ the now-completed La Grande reservoir is one reason for opposition by the Cree and local Inuit. In 1984, two of every three people in Chisasibi, a community of 2500 at the mouth of the La Grande river, had unacceptably high levels of mercury in their bodies; some elders had 20 times the level deemed acceptable, and some exhibited symptoms of mercury poisoning. According to the Cree, fish and wildlife populations have also been severely affected by La Grande Phase I, with devastating social and economic effects in the community.

 An important aspect of the megaprojects proposed for northern Quebec is that Hydro-Quebec almost completely dominates the scientific and other research conducted in the region. The Crown corporation has commissioned hundreds of studies assessing impacts related to the megaprojects, but the results of most have not yet been released to the public. Very few of the studies have been subject to peer review; many are available only in the so called "Grey literature" of consultants' reports and industry-sponsored papers. Few Quebec biologists or other scientists interested in the North have not, at some point, been hired by Hydro-Quebec to carry out project related studies. In this, there is a striking parallel between Hydro-Quebec's planning and that which supported a proposed natural gas pipeline in the Mackenzie Valley in the 1970s. Prior to the establishment of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry (Berger inquiry) in 1974, industry also cornered much of the information needed for an informed debate, and both the industry and government dealt in private, ignoring most of the concerns raised by aboriginal people, environmentalists, and other concerned Canadians.

It is noteworthy that no public review (such as the Berger inquiry or those conducted more recently under the federal Environmental Assessment and Review Process [EARP]) has critically examined Hydro-Quebec's program in northern Quebec, nor is Hydro-Quebec regulated by any regulatory body such as a public utilities board.

However, the federal government announced in July 1991 that it would carry out a panel review of the entire Great Whale project under EARP. The federal and Quebec governments have agreed that their respective environmental assessment procedures will be harmonized. There is much confusion about which processes will be employed as a result of a Federal Court of Canada decision in September 1991 which ordered the federal government to apply the environmental assessment rules under the 1975 treaty between the James Bay Cree and Inuit and the federal government.

Largely as a result of a lawsuit launched by the Cree, the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, and others, Quebec agreed in October 1991 that the environmental impacts of roads and other infrastructures associated with the Great Whale project will be assessed separately from those of the dams and dikes.


 Hydroelectric megaprojects are also being proposed by Ontario Hydro for southern James Bay. Of 18 new hydroelectric developments included in Ontario Hydro's Providing the Balance of Power, its demand-supply plan issued in 1990, 12 are in the Hudson Bay/James Bay bioregion. Six new dams and six redevelopments of existing dams are proposed for the Moose, Abitibi, and Mattagami rivers in northern Ontario. The plan calls for the development of these sites over the period 1990 to 2016. The 12 projects will generate 1890 megawatts of electricity and flood at least 2299 hectares of land. The published demand-supply plan outlines the environmental impacts and indicates that they will be addressed during subsequent project assessments.

In October 1991, Ontario Hydro announced that planning and field studies for all Moose River developments (with the exception of the extensions to Mattagami stations) had been suspended

 A large portion of Ontario's hydroelectric potential lies in other rivers flowing into James Bay (the Albany and Attawapiskat) and into Hudson Bay (the Severn and Winisk). While hydroelectric development of these rivers is not proposed in the demand-supply plan, the Government of Ontario is considering private sector proposals to produce hydroelectric power on these rivers.

 Unlike Quebec, Ontario will be holding public hearings on the need and rationale for the developments, including the northern hydroelectric projects proposed in Ontario Hydro's demand-supply plan. The hearings may begin as early as late 1991. Cree communities in northern Ontario are participating in the hearings under the aegis of the Moose River/James Bay Coalition. The coalition is carrying out research on the impacts of Ontario Hydro's proposed developments in the Hudson Bay/lames Bay bioregion. The Rawson Academy of Aquatic Science has been asked to provide independent scientific advice to the coalition.

 Ontario Hydro is also encouraging the development of the Conawapa Dam on the Nelson River in northern Manitoba by agreeing to purchase electric power to be generated by the project.


 The existing Churchill-Nelson project has a generating capacity of 2378 megawatts, and Limestone 1200 megawatts; Conawapa will produce 1272 megawatts The environmental impact assessment for the Churchill-Nelson project was initiated after Manitoba Hydro had fixed the configuration, operating regime, and timing of construction for the diversion of the Churchill River into the Nelson River. None the less, serious environmental impacts were experienced.

Severe shoreline erosion, caused by impoundment of Southern Indian Lake as part of the diversion, led to increased turbidity. This resulted in the collapse of the commercial whitefish industry. Whitefish populations in Cross Lake, another large lake in the Churchill-Nelson river basin, feL1 65 per cent. In addition, walleye and northern pike in all flooded lakes along the diversion route accumulated mercury levels that exceeded Canadian Limits for the protection of human health. Some commercial fisheries were permanently closed, and local residents were encouraged to avoid consumption. The collapse of the commercial fishery placed a severe strain on the social fabric of northern aboriginal communities, forcing them to move and/or to rely increasingly on compensation payments for income.

The issue of methylmercury contamination resulting from northern hydroelectric developments was first understood because of work done in the early 1970s in northern Manitoba, by scientists from the DFO's Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg. While some research remains to be done, we know that on flooded lands the methylation process converts biologically unavailable inorganic mercury info its toxic, biologically available form. This phenomenon was not predicted by Manitoba Hydro, nor was it well understood when Hydro-Quebec began construction of James Bay Phase 1. Yet the effects of incremental loadings of methylmercury into the aquatic ecosystem are of great importance. It is of particular relevance given the relatively high background levels of mercury in the Hudson Bay/James Bay bioregion. However, methylmercury contamination is not the only, or necessarily most important, impact to be addressed. Large-scale ecological perturbations from within or outside the region also must be understood.

The Conawapa project will be subject to a joint federal-provincial public review under EARP.

 Steel towers

One cold day
I stood on the shores of James Bay.
The sun shone bright, the sky blue.
I wanted to find a clue.

Why, among the spruce and pine
rows of steel towers stood in line.
They were out of place, as I near
an Indian camp I shed a tear.

Looking for white birds-
instead as I turn my back
tracks of bulldozers
meet my sight.

Against the sky and beyond
stood stark steel towers.
In this harsh land of ice and snow
these steel towers are colder than forty below.

We Cree live in harmony
with nature.
In this land where no man had trod
in the fresh white snow I read
signs of upheaval of black earth,
bulldozers making roads
and steel towers standing tall.

-Margaret Cromarty,

The Hudson Bay / James Bay Bioregion Program

In January of 1992, the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee (CARC), the Environmental Committee of Sanikiluaq, and the Rawson Academy of Aquatic Science will launch-the Hudson Bay/James Bay Bioregion Program, an independent initiative to apply an ecosystems approach to the region.

The Hudson Bay/James Bay Bioregion Program has two main objectives:

 The three collaborating organizations are convinced that the development of northern Canadian rivers for hydroelectric power will be a crucial issue in eastern Canada for at least the next decade. Hudson Bay and James Bay are increasingly subject to ecological stresses resulting from hydroelectric projects, pollution carried by atmospheric currents from southern industries, and the effects of global climate change. The collaborating organizations believe that a regional, ecosystem-based approach to development must be initiated to avoid the multijurisdictional impasse which has long hampered sound management in the Great Lakes and other vital watersheds.

Phase I of the program will identify key cumulative impacts of existing and proposed developments from scientific and traditional knowledge perspectives. Although Phase I is deliberately intended to adopt a broader approach than those utilized in the current environmental assessments of the Great Whale (Quebec) and Conawapa (Manitoba) hydroelectric projects, the information generated in Phase I will be of considerable value to participants in these reviews.

Phase II will propose a process for co-operation of governments, developers, aboriginal organizations, and other stakeholders. This may take the form of regular consultations, establishment of a bioregion management authority, or development of a formal agreement committing stakeholders to the principles of an ecosystem-based approach of sustainable development. Watershed management institutions, such as the Canada-United States International Joint Commission, will be studied as part of the process to identify an effective interjurisdictional regime for Hudson Bay/James Bay

Located al the centre of the Hudson Bay/lames Bay bioregion, the Inuit community of Sanikiluaq on the Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay represents an appropriate focus for the work in both phases. Decisions affecting water quality and flows as far away, as Alberta, North Dakota, and central Ontario and Quebec could affect the "downstream" ecosystems of Hudson Bay and James Bay, and in turn, the marine mammal, fish, and bird species upon which the largely subsistence economy of Sanikiluaq depends.

The Environmental Committee of Sanikiluaq will take the lead in examining traditional aboriginal knowledge of the bioregion through a consultative process involving the Cree and Inuit communities of the Hudson Bay/James Bay bioregion.

The steering committee, composed of representatives from the three collaborating organizations, will be assisted by an elders' advisory committee for the duration of the program.

The collaborating organizations are seeking financial support from both public-and private-sector institutions for the program. To date, eight private foundations have committed roughly $600 000 to the program. The federal departments of Environment, and Indian and Northern Affairs, and the Government of the Northwest Territories have indicated their support in principle for the program. The program will also seek the active cooperation of industry and the public utilities, especially Hydro-Quebec, Manitoba Hydro, and Ontario Hydro.

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