Unheard Voices: James Bay II and the Women of Kuujjuarapik

Suzanne Hawkes


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:

When I go to the General Meetings, I say, "l don't want our land to be touched. I don't want our land to be destroyed! I don't want the whole of Quebec to be touched by you guys!" But I'm ignored. Two of the elders feel that this project is not only unfair, but immoral, in the deepest sense. As 71year-old Jessie explained, "We live only on water; we are alive because of water. This river has some of the best waters we know. God made water for each place, and we must leave the water in its place where He made it." Emily, 62, was similarly adamant: The Qallunuatts destroy. God made our world, our land, in six days. When He did, he gave each place-like we're Inuks, he made our land for us, he made food for us, and he did so with the others, too. But the Qallunuatts destroy.  Mary, 53, was equally frustrated: "I have heard that our river is going to be dammed, and they're going to build so many [structures]...and our river is going to Quallunaat land. They're going to be using our river to make money with it, and we're not going to get anything from it." Emily, 62, expressed her own grief over the hydro project: It really hurts me to think about it. They dammed a river in La Grande, and they're planning to dam more than one river here. They're also planning to do it further north.  She added, They dammed the river Kuujjuaq. That was small; but in our land, it's going to be big, because they're going to work in a lot of different places. And it's going to be worse.   Major Concerns about the Great Whale Project

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

 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:

 All along I've been saying that the animals will be affected. The caribou migrating north will be affected with big dykes on their way. Especially the migratory birds that come all the way from the States and go as far as northern Quebec. Especially for those rare fish and rare seals we have in the land-the freshwater seals in Clearwater Lake. She explains further: Everything works in cycles. Once one cycle is ruined, part of us is going to be losing something. And I was always concerned about the land, the animals that feed on one another. Like, if a fsh is gone, where is the beaver going to catch his fish? One elder, Martha, is keenly aware of the cumulative impacts of airborne pollution: "It's going to be ruined-all the food is going to be ruined...by the project and Gulf war, too. Because they're already spilling the oil in the water. We're not going to have food very long...it's all going to go one day." Another elder, Emily, is concerned about the effects the project will have on nearby areas: "...all the food will be destroyed, even the food in the Sanikiluaq area, because if there is flooding, animals that live on the ground are either going to be really skinny or they will be sick, and they won't be able to eat any more."

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:

A lot of caribou died around the Kuujjuaq area because of the hydro [project]. When they had a General Meeting with Hydro-Quebec at the Rec Hall, they were telling the Inuit that country food such as caribou and fish will not be affected. They're Iying right to our faces. Mercury Contamination: "I'm worried about the mercury..."

 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:

 In our camp where we usually go, where I grew up, it's [near] another river. We camp south of Great Whale with my family. It's near Long Island, and that's where I would call my homeland when I was little. It was a traditional area for my family, tour] camping site; every summer we would go there...Some families were born up north, and some families, my family, were born in the south of the camps. So they grew up there learning the traditional skills and we kept it up--in my age group, anyway-and that's where I would say it was my traditional camping sire, where I grew up. That's one of the places that would be touched, too, if it goes ahead. And I'd like to preserve that, because of the fact that it's part of my upbringing. It's not just this place, this specific area that I'm concerned about, it's all over the coast. Annie, 33, also continues to utilize her family's traditional camping grounds. She noted: Every spring, we always go camping by skidoo; and by summer we always go camping by canoe. I grew up in Richmond Gulf [to the North], just south of Little Whale River. That's where I heard the rivers are going +to be dammed too. I'm very sad to see them go. It's so beautiful, and my grandfather's spirit is there, too; so it makes me very sad. I don't want them to touch the river. Conclusion

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.

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