Voltage-hungry Quebec makes Sanikiluaq uneasy

Nunavut under pressure from fast-tracking of new hydro projects


The people of Sanikiluaq have reason to be uneasy.

They weren’t affected by last week’s power outage, which threw Ontario and much of the eastern U.S. into the dark.

But the blackout lent a new urgency to hydroelectric developments in northern Quebec – projects that directly affect Sanikiluaq.

Last Thursday, Quebec released a document setting how environmental impact statements for the Eastmain-Rupert hydroelectric project should be conducted.

The 70-page package of directives left out any reference to Sanikiluaq and Nunavut, or to Inuit, although this project will alter the flow of rivers that empty into James Bay and Hudson Bay.

The $3.8-billion project, part of the controversial James Bay power development plan, would generate 1,200 megawatts of electricity when it is completed in 10 years.

“Energy is very important to us,” said Quebec’s premier Jean Charest shortly after the blackout – a point he’s bound to emphasize when he meets with Inuit leaders during a short junket to Nunavik planned for next weekend.

As Quebec gears up to fast-track hydroelectric development, this means the Government of Nunavut will look at how it plans to honor its recent commitment to protect James Bay and Hudson Bay.

Shortly after Cree and Inuit signed deals with Quebec in the spring of 2002 that would pave the way for new hydroelectric projects, Sanikiluaq, fearing the effects of more hydroelectric development nearby, asked for the GN’s help.

“All Nunavummiut have a responsibility in protecting the environment that provides us with country foods. In Sanikiluaq, that means protecting the surrounding waters and marine mammals that provide physical and cultural sustenance,” stated Premier Paul Okalik in June, when he signed a memorandum of understanding with the mayor of Sanikiluaq.

The agreement creates a Nunavut-Hudson Bay working group. The GN has already given the group $55,000.

Brian Fleming, Sanikiluaq’s chief administrator, lobbied against the Great Whale hydroelectric project in the 1990s.

Fleming said the need to update aging electric infrastructure and meet increasing demands for power means new hydro-projects affecting James Bay and Hudson Bay are more likely now then they were 10 years ago.

“From our point of view, we’re not going to stand in the way of the rest of the population, but if you’re going to do it, do it right, get a monitoring system fixed up, and in place so we can cope with it,” Fleming said. “A lot is at stake.”

Fleming said environmental studies should look at entire scope and impact of any new projects that affect watersheds, so that the James and Hudson bays don’t end up with as many environmental problems as the Great Lakes.

But time is short. Quebec’s desire to speed up new projects means that the environmental impact statements on the Eastmain-Rupert project will be handed over next spring, followed by public consultations later in 2004.

A final go-ahead order for the project’s start could be issued early in 2005.

When its two proponents, the Société d’énergie de la Baie-James and Hydro-Québec, complete their environmental impact studies, these will be submitted to a provincial evaluation committee (COMEX), which has three representatives from Quebec and two from the Cree Regional Authority.

COMEX will then hold a round of public consultations with a federal review panel.

This federal body will then carry out its own environmental analysis of the project, and make its recommendations to the provincial administrator of the James Bay land claim agreement – which happens to be the Quebec environment department.

The GN can make sure a member of this committee is appointed from Nunavut to represent the interests of Nunavut, Inuit, and the people of Sanikiluaq.

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