In 2013, Canadian utility Hydro-Québec completed the construction of the Eastmain-1-A-Sarcelle-Rupert hydroelectric development at James Bay, encompassing an area of 46,164 sq km, for a planned electricity output of 8.7 TWh. The project has benefitted throughout from an ongoing partnership with the local indigenous Cree communities.
The result of numerous consultations with stakeholders, the project included the construction of Eastmain-1-A (768 MW) and Sarcelle (150 MW) powerhouses, as well as the partial diversion of the Rivière Rupert.
The partial diversion of the Rivière Rupert was designed to channel water to the two new powerhouses, Eastmain-1-A and Sarcelle, and to two other generating stations further downstream, which are part of the La Grande complex. The river is mainly used by the Crees, both in winter and summer, although it is also occasionally used by non-aboriginals in the summer months for recreational purposes.
The roots of the partnership
In 2002, Québec and the Cree of James Bay signed the Paix des Braves agreement – a development that ended years of conflict and gave indigenous peoples the right to participate in the territory’s economic development.
Following the agreement, Hydro-Québec Société d'énergie de la Baie James (SEBJ) and the Cree communities signed a separate agreement that paved the way for partnership in the Eastmain-1-A-Sarcelle-Rupert project.
As part of this agreement, Hydro-Québec committed to reducing any negative impact of the project, to involve the Cree in environmental studies and construction work, and to ensure that project-affected communities would share in the project’s economic benefits.
Another important element was to make sure that Cree communities would be able to continue activities dependent on the habitat, such as hunting, fishing and trapping.
The partnership in practice: communication and collaboration
In the early stages of the partnership, Hydro-Québec invested time and resources in becoming familiar with the culture and language of the Cree partners in the project.
The partners established mixed committees to ensure fluid communication and collaboration. One of these was a monitoring committee, comprised of representatives of both the Cree communities and Hydro-Québec, integrating traditional knowledge with environmental concerns.
In total, eight weirs were built on the Rupert to maintain the water level upstream and thus prevent bank erosion and preserve riparian habitats. The flow of the river is also controlled to vary from one season to the next: it is increased for spring flood, slightly decreased in the summer, increased again for fall flood, and then reduced in the winter. These measures preserve spawning grounds and fish habitats, and allow the Crees to continue using the river as they always have, both for fishing and hunting.
In 2011, the indirect benefits of the Eastmain-1-A-Sarcelle-Rupert project on Cree communities were estimated at $18m."
Hydro-Québec rehabilitated sites, enhanced the area affected by the project, preserved the fishing activities and improved access to the area. The company also seeded 400 hectares to support goose hunting, and built two pools and boardwalks at Smokey Hill Rapids for traditional Cree cisco fishing.
All fish species were preserved through the development of spawning grounds and fish passes, which allow fish to reproduce and to pass through the weirs in both directions (upstream and downstream). As a result of these measures, a live ecosystem has been maintained in the section of the river beyond the diversion point.
The benefits promised to the Cree communities in the terms of the original partnership agreement were exceeded by three times, with some 37 Cree companies being awarded contracts valued at $870m between 2007 and 2011.
A study has found that over four out of five Cree workers what were involved in the project found a new job following its completion, particularly in construction, building maintenance and restoration. A Hydro-Québec survey found that 92 per cent of the Cree workers involved in the project would be willing to repeat the experience in a similar job.
In 2011, the indirect benefits of the Eastmain-1-A-Sarcelle-Rupert project on Cree communities were estimated at $18m.