In fact, environmentalists were often dismissed during that time period. Moreover, environmental regulation was seen as an area of concern for each individual country, so that other countries would rarely, if ever, provide international pressure for environmental issues. However, the growing body of scientific literature about the environment changed the game between the 1970s and the 1980s/1990s. For example, when the James Bay Project was first conceived, it was considered a very green source of electricity because it lacked emissions and other hallmarks of pollution. The reality, however, is that the project resulted in incredible environmental damage:
It has been shown that environmental impacts of the first phase include: methyl mercury contamination of water in reservoirs and downstream rivers and mercury accumulation in fish; reversal of the natural seasonal flow pattern of rivers; conversion of La Grande estuary from a saltwater environment to a freshwater one because of regulated peak flow in winter; changes in water temperatures in affected rivers; loss of wetland productivity;
production of greenhouse gasses by the decomposition of vegetation in inundated areas; destruction of shoreline and shoreline habitat (creation of dead zones) around reservoirs due to fluctuating water levels; riverbank erosion downstream from dams; and interference with animal migration routes. This presents a far different picture from the one advanced in the past of hydroelectricity as a clean, environmentally safe energy source (Linton, 1992).
The James Bay Project had so many negative environmental results, that it seems impossible to single one out as the most damaging; however water contamination became a major issue in the dispute. While water contamination is always a big issue, it is especially critical for aboriginal people, who may rely upon natural water sources for their drinking water. In fact, while ground water purity is the main clean water issue for most people, "surface water purity is highly revered by most aboriginal people" (Bethune, 1997). This is a critical distinction because "surface water is more susceptible to contamination than ground water and in general has higher levels of contamination" (Bethune, 1997). The flip side is that surface water contamination is generally easier to remedy. Ground water purity is also a critical issue for aboriginal people:
A 1994 survey of 603 water treatment plants (serving more than five homes) found that 61 per cent are supplied by groundwater and 34 per cent by surface water (the remainder had an unknown water source). Relatively high ground water dependence exists in British Columbia, Yukon, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and the Atlantic region. The remainder of Native people are supplied either through agreements with neighboring municipalities or by private systems (mainly wells). By comparison, only about 30 per cent of all Canadians are supplied by ground water and most of these people live in rural areas (Bethune, 1997).
Water pollution has been one of the major environmental results of the James Bay Project. There are many different ways for contaminants to enter the water supply. One of the significant ways for contaminants to enter the water supply is through "large scale flooding due to dam construction," which was obviously an issue in the James Bay Project (Bethune, 1997). However, it is also important to understand that industrial activities can also provide water contamination. The actual construction activities, not only to build the dams, but also to build access roads, introduced contaminants. Furthermore, it is possible that river diversion, which alters where water enters into the underground water supply, might have an impact on water quality.
There are four main types of water contamination. These include: organisms, dissolved metals, dissolved non-metals, and synthetic organic compounds. Organisms that can contaminant ground and/or surface water include giardia lamblia, salmonella, shigella, typhoid, Yersinin enterocolitica, and viral hepatitis (Bethune, 1997). These organisms are commonly found in feces and can be washed into water sources. Organism contamination is more prevalent in surface water. Organism contamination is also highly treatable, as boiling water or treating it with chlorine kills most bacteria. Metal contaminants include: aluminum, arsenic, barium, cadmium, copper, chromium, iron, lead, lithium, manganese, mercury, molybdenum nickel, silver, uranium, and zinc. Mercury is probably the most problematic of the metal contaminants and mercury exposure is directly linked to flooding large tracts of land, as occurred in the James Bay Project (Bethune, 1997). Non-metallic water contaminants include: acids, ammonia, nitrate, phosphates, boron, chloride, cyanide, fluoride, radium, selenium, sulfates and various radioactive isotopes (Bethune, 1997). However, the James Bay Project does not appear to be linked to significant non-metallic contamination. Likewise, synthetic organic contaminants including pesticides, chlorinated solvents, hydrocarbons, and poly-chlorinated bi-phenols, are not among the major culprits in the James Bay Project's environmental destruction.
In fact, the main environmental problem with the James Bay Project was a tremendous increase in mercury levels in water and fish, a Cree staple. In fact, when the Cree brought suit against the Hydro-Quebec and the government to stop the James Bay Project, the government and Hydro-Quebec acknowledged that there was mercury pollution. This high level of mercury presented a potential toxin for Cree living a traditional lifestyle. However, the mercury contamination may not have been foreseeable in a 1970s environmental assessment, had one been done, because the elevated mercury levels were not due to direct-metal contamination, but to a "sharp increase in aquatic bacteria" (Coffee, 1992). There was nothing about the project that showed a direct release of mercury into the water. However, "decomposition of trees as a result of flooding creates a highly toxic form of mercury, methyl-mercury, which is passed down the food chain. People whose diets are based on fish are poisoned, as are other endangered species, notably the Beluga whale and the fresh water seal" (Foley & Hamm, 1992).
However, water pollution is only a small part of the environmental impact of the James Bay Project. First, it is impossible to predict the impact that "destroying the balance of a complex hydraulic cycle" will have on weather patterns (Foley & Hamm, 1992). Moreover, the flooding of reservoir land has destroyed the native habitat for many species. For example, the large scale release resulted in enough caribou deaths to count as a slaughter. This is especially significant to the Cree and the Inuit, who traditionally rely upon trapping and hunting for sustenance. Other animal species that are at risk of losing their habitat as a result of the James Bay Project include: snow geese, marten, beaver, black bears, polar bears, and elk (Foley & Hamm, 1992). For any environmentalist, these animals are significant. However, it is important to notice that these animals are culturally significant to the Cree and the Inuit, so that their loss would be more than an intangible harm to them; it would directly impact their ability to live a traditional lifestyle. a
Hydro-Quebec eventually proposed a project on the Great Whale River. However, the Cree opposed this addition to the project even more than the initial James Bay Project. In addition, the Cree had come to the realization that aboriginal resistance might not be sufficient to stop or halt projects. Therefore, the Cree's Grand Chief, Matthew Coon Come engaged in some smart publicity; he organized a canoe trip from the Hudson Bay to the Hudson River to bring attention to the proposed project. He also engaged in a publicity campaign aimed at showing how the James Bay Project had impacted the Cree. First, the diversion of the water meant the loss of some traditional hunting and trapping areas to rising water. While the project did increase employment in the area, it did not employ a large number of Cree or Inuit. Their populations were still plagued by poverty. In addition, the permanent transportation routes disrupted traditional ways of life, which provided culture shock for these traditional aboriginals. The culture shock went beyond the developed areas, introducing new social problems to the tribes. Chief Come's decision to involve New York in his publicity stunt was a wise one; the proposed Great Whale project would have sold its electricity to New York State, but the state withdrew from its purchasing agreement in the wake of public opposition. What this publicity campaign demonstrated is that, even if the Cree cannot win a definitive victory in court, they are not powerless in this dispute.
Bethune, D.N. (1997). Environmental Damage and Aboriginal Health. Retrieved February 21,