Unheard Voices: James Bay II and the Women of Kuujjuarapik
Unheard Voices: "The Qallunaats destroy..."
All of the women with whom I met expressed deep concern and unequivocal opposition to the proposed hydro project in their community. Some women are extremely frustrated at their seeming insignificance, even invisibility, in the eyes of the federal and provincial governments, and the developers. As 33-year-old Annie said, "I wish we'd count in Canada in Parliament: we don't even seem to exist for the Prime Minister. I don't even like to see myself as Canadian now-just Inuk." Emily, 62, adds:
It is worth noting that Hydro-Quebec is currently undertaking environmental impact studies for the Great Whale project. However, the utility originally insisted on separating the review into two phases: the first to deal with the project impacts of the transportation infrastructure required for the development, and the second to deal with the hydroelectric complex itself. As one might expect, the women of Kujjuarapik view the project in its entirety, in terms of both space and time. The major concerns of these women are diverse in nature and scope. However, they can be very loosely grouped into environmental and social themes.
Country food is of fundamental importance to the Inuit. Deep concerns about the continuity and health of country food were expressed by all the informants. According to Malaya, 46: "The country food is going to be destroyed. We don't want the hydro project to start in our community: the animals are going to disappear." She adds, "Dinosaurs became extinct a long time ago. That wil1 happen with country food, too. Our children and their children might never know animals."
Louisa, 35, is explicit about the impacts:
Two women also expressed concern about accidental flooding, and the effects this might have on migrating caribou. The Inuit vividly remember September 30, 1984, when 10 000 caribou were drowned on the Caniapiscau River, near Kuujjuaq. As Jessie, 71, says:
Four women were particularly concerned about mercury contamination. Indeed, it became evident throughout the period of study that this issue is of substantial concern to people in both Kuujjuarapik and Kuujjuaq.
When the La Grande River was dammed, one of its greatest impacts was mercury contamination. Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and is especially abundant in the Canadian Shield. When the reservoir for LG I was flooded, vast tracts of forested lands were submerged. The subsequent biodegradation of this massive quantity of organic matter resulted in the methylation and release of dangerously high levels of mercury into the surrounding ecosystem. Methyl mercury bioaccumulates in the food chain, becoming particularly concentrated in the flesh of predators, including humans. Between 1982 and 1987, mercury levels doubled among Cree who regularly consumed fish in the region surrounding the La Grande complex.
If the Great Whale project goes ahead, mercury contamination will occur throughout the ecosystem. It is almost assured that the people of Kuujjuarapik will be subject to the same harvest limitations as those in Chisasibi. In fact, the contamination may be even more problematic in the Great Whale region, as mercury laden fresh water will be discharged from the GB 1 generating station into nearby Manitounuk Sound, potentially contaminating seal, beluga, and other marine mammals.
It is clear that the social and economic costs of mercury contamination among the Inuit will be far-reaching. It is anticipated that, not only will government costs for additional inspection, enforcement and health care rise, but substantial financial losses will accrue at the community level. Income currently generated from non-native sports fishermen and hunters from the South, as well as from commercial fisheries, will certainly decline.
Harvesting restrictions may have additional psychological, nutritional, and cultural effects on the Inuit. This was the case when the settlement of Sugluk, another Nunavik community to the north of Kuujjuarapik, was found to have significantly elevated levels of mercury contamination in 1978.
The duration of mercury in the ecosystem is unknown. Initially, it was believed that the mercury contamination of the La Grande system would decline after the first five to ten years after flooding. It is now believed that contamination will last for many decades, if not longer. Even Hydro-Quebec admits, "when the Grande Baleine [Great Whale] ...reservoirs are impounded, the still-high mercury concentrations observed in the La Grande Complex will not yet have decreased to an appreciable extent."
In 1987, the James Bay Mercury Committee found that clearing areas of trees and brush prior to flooding can reduce the problem significantly. Hydro-Quebec, however, is willing to clear only certain key areas of land, claiming the costs of widespread brush-removal will be prohibitive. So far, the utility has acknowledged that there is no evidence of "any acceptable solutions from the environmental and economic perspectives to solve this problem at the source."
Although the Inuit were traditionally nomadic and highly mobile, the same camping areas would often be seasonally occupied by successive generations of one family or kinship group. Many Inuit continue to be aware of, and attached to, the traditional lands of their families. Eleven women expressed concern about the integrity of these traditional hunting and fishing camps, many of which will be submerged or otherwise affected by Phase 11. As Louisa, 35, explained:
At the time of The community interviews, there was every indication that virtually the entire community of Kuujjuarapik-male and female- was totally opposed to the Great Whale project. The frustration-even grief-over the tremendous social and environmental impacts was, at times, almost a tangible thing. Yet, it appears that several factors may be contributing to a lack of effective action and involvement within the community itself.
The leaders and representatives of the community arc perceived by many women as being somewhat ineffectual. There was a feeling among some of the women that the community needed to be given direction in terms of campaigning in the South. This responsibility was felt to fall upon the municipal leaders. At the same time, there was dissatisfaction among the women with the local working group responsible for negotiating with Hydro-Quebec; some felt that the group was not "doing enough" to achieve the community's objectives. In some ways, then, there are difficulties in terms of representation of the community's needs and desires, not only at the provincial and regional levels, but even locally.
This conflict in representation is further exacerbated along the lines of gender. Inuit women share the plight of women worldwide, in that they are not adequately represented in governmental and non-governmental structures. Thus, they do not have an equal say in decisions which affect their own lives.
Every woman I interviewed or met, without exception, was deeply and unequivocally opposed to the Great Whale project. Yet, only one woman is present on the working group, and the decision makers al Makivik and Hydro-Quebec and on the Municipal Council arc predominantly male. And, although most women felt that their concerns did not differ from those of men, many women felt that Their own level of concern was higher. It is possible, of course that the positions and activities of such bodies might remain the same, even if a more equitable balance in membership, in terms of gender, were achieved However, it is interesting to speculate on the potential differences in either levels of effort or in the, actual positions of leadership regarding the Great Whale project if women were more adequately represented.
An additional concern of women is that of an inherent male bias
in the impact assessment procedures dealing with development projects in
Quebec. Not only are women inadequately represented on decision-making
bodies as a general rule; but they also tend to bear the brunt of some
additional "indirect" social impacts for which little consideration may
be given. For example, women are primarily responsible for child care;
but the cultural heritage and the natural environment that They would pass
on to their offspring may be severely degraded within the next few years.
As well, the frustration and anger of men is often taken out on women in
the form of physical and verbal abuse, particularly in the presence of
alcohol. Yet, in the case of the federal Environmental Assessment and Review
Process (EARP), only social costs directly arising from biophysical impacts
may be examined. Thus, the direct human impacts of mercury contamination
or reduced wildlife harvest could be examined, but the multiple impacts
arising from the influx of thousands of white males into the community
could not Yet, from discussions with the women of Kuujjuarapik, we have
seen that this latter issue is of profound concern. It is not yet known
if the EARP process will be applied to
the Great Whale project[. The extent to which the assessment
procedures established under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement
do deal with such "indirect" impacts warrants further study.