HYDRO-QUEBEC AND THE CREE CASE STUDY

    The Cree Indians, who have lived for thousands of years in what is now Northern Quebec, were threatened in the early 1990’s by a massive, dam project by the Canadian power company, Hydro-Quebec. The company had already flooded approximately one thousand acres in the are for hydro-electric power. Those dams led to mercury pollution problems, poisoning fish populations upon which the Cree survive. Then, in 1989, Hydro-Quebec proposed the "Great Whale" project, whose plans entailed the flooding of an area the size of New Hampshire, severely threatening not only the Cree, but flora and fauna in the area as well.

    The Cree immediately called the Great Whale plan "environmental racism," and began a campaign to force Hydro-Quebec to cancel the plan. Since New York state was projected to be a major consumer of the dam’s electricity, the Hydro-Quebec struggle quickly became international. Environmental groups in the U.S. joined the Cree in urging American politicians to meet their energy needs without Hydro-Quebec’s help.

    The fight was political back in Canada as well. Quebecois focused on separating from the rest of Canada saw the growth of province-owned Hydro-Quebec as the economic key to independence. The Cree, on the other hand, vehemently opposed secession, and issued statements declaring their desire to remain part of Canada.

    In 1992, the Cree won a major victory by convincing then Governor Mario Cuomo of New York to back out of the state’s $17 billion contract with Hydro-Quebec. The Cree then gained additional support from the United Nations’ Commission on Human Rights, which declared that aboriginal people should have a veto over industrial developments in their native areas.

    However, New York’s need for power, and Quebec’s desire for economic development were great. The Great Whale project had not been harpooned yet. In 1993 New York again began making plans to buy power from Hydro-Quebec. The Cree stepped up their grass-roots struggle by challenging the contracts in court, both in the U.S. and in Canada. They won a major court victory in Canada in 1994, when the Supreme Court of Canada required Hydro-Quebec to submit to a stricter form of national, environmental review. The Court upheld the National Energy Board’s decision that Hydro-Quebec had failed to make an appropriate social cost-benefit analysis of the project.

    About a month after the Canadian decision, New York canceled the second contract with Hydro-Quebec, again taking the Great Whale project off the table. But Cree leaders warned observers not to call this a total victory. Hydro-Quebec, they noted, was still pressuring the Canadian government for permits to continue developing the dam.

    There are few American law review articles on the subject, but it would be worth it to investigate Canadian journals. To get a quick overview of this case study, start with the January 12, 1992 Sunday New York Times Magazine article. It might also be interesting to track down, "Power: The James Bay Cree v. Hydro Quebec" a documentary film about the case.