Prophecies and Power

Writer Joseph Boyden discovers big plans afoot for the other James Bay watershed

This past winter, I began receiving a slew of emails from friends living on the west coast of James Bay. These emails held a tinge of panic, talked of a large fault line that runs from east to west across the bay. Word had it that this fault line was recently active, like a long-sleeping water monster stirring to wake again. I scratched my head but soon forgot about it. I receive all kinds of interesting emails from my northern friends: photos of albino moose and sturgeon big as canoes, proclamations that the huge bridge at Moose River Crossing will crumble under the weight of the Polar Bear Express train any day.

But when more emails arrived about this fault line, I started wondering. I still visit this place that I love, where I used to live, several times a year. I’d never heard of it being an earthquake zone. That exists in California and British Columbia, not in the Arctic lowlands. But lo and behold, one of the attachments I opened contained a geological map of James Bay, a jagged line running across it, red dots marking recent earthquake activity.

Shortly after, news came in that with last April’s ice breakup, the communities of Kashechewan, Fort Albany and Attawapiskat began flooding. Even Moose Factory appeared to be in danger. And then the most intriguing rumour of all: a shaman’s vision warned the James Bay community that the Cree were in grave jeopardy. Water was involved. Lots of water. Talk of a tsunami ensued, dreams of drowned bodies beneath ice. Some in power took the shaman’s words seriously, made money available for the Cree to leave while they could. Many did. Many others laughed. Nothing happened.

Rumours are difficult to separate from facts sometimes in this part of Canada. I called my close friend, William Tozer, Moose Cree legend, to get the skinny. I’ve known William and his family for 13 years now; his wife, Pam, was a student when I taught at Northern College in Moosonee. Their youngest child, Rhayne, calls me Uncle. I reported what I’d heard to William: some people in his community saw that William was taking this shaman’s vision seriously, packing up supplies and heading out to his camp on the Abitibi River in order to avoid catastrophe. If William believed, the thinking went, something might really be up. He’s a former bush pilot who makes his living as a hunter, trapper and guide. William’s one of the best. He’s also a trickster.

I asked him if he really did get out. He laughed. “I sure did.” I told him he didn’t seem the type of guy. He doesn’t give a lot of weight to visions, Indian or otherwise. “Keep in mind,” William said, “I always go to the camp this time of year. Spring goose hunt. If people want to believe it was because I was scared, so be it. I still needed to stock my freezer.”

After the rumours settled down last spring, my wife, Amanda, and I took some close friends up to William’s camp on the Abitibi to meet him. I’ve taken many people up to William’s camp in the past: former students to moose hunt and fish, my son, Jacob, and my brothers and sisters to snowmobile. But I’d not invited up such a well-known gang before, including Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip and Mark Mattson, head of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper.

The point was twofold. End of May on the Abitibi River is some seriously great fishing. But more importantly, William heard rumours that the Ontario government planned a lot of dams going up all through the Moose River basin, peppering Treaty Area 9, largely home to the Moose Cree. I’m not talking about one or two or three in this pristine country, but enough to feed Ontario the vast majority of its new hydroelectric power in the next 20 years — something along the lines of Hydro-Québec’s massive James Bay projects. Problem was, virtually none of the Ontario Cree had any idea. And still don’t.

Our May fishing trip was excellent. Lots of pike and pickerel. Campfires where we cooked up moose ribs and goose. The kids with us, fascinated by the bush, learned a lot from William. The crew of the Polar Bear Express got a kick out of meeting Gord, and he was kind enough to play a few tunes. As well, William expressed a desire to invite Mark Mattson to Moosonee and Moose Factory to see what plans were being made by Ontario Power Authority (OPA) for his home and workplace.

Waterkeeper Alliance is the fastest-growing grassroots environmental group in the world. And as William Tozer once explained to me, if you want to find out something about a body of water, go to its head. So I met with Bobby Kennedy (son of the late Robert F. Kennedy) in New Orleans when he visited not so long ago. I drove him around some of the worst Katrina-ravaged parts of the city and listened to a speech he gave at the annual Waterkeeper Alliance convention in the Big Easy. Suffice to say that the Kennedy clan’s oral skill and compassion lives on in Bobby. His words hooked me.

I called him recently to pose a couple of questions. I asked him first how he would define Waterkeeper Alliance to the Canadian public.

“It’s an enforcement group,” Bobby answered. “Our central foundation is the notion that our waterways belong to the people. Not to the government. Not to corporations.” He spoke about how this central idea dates back to the Code of Justinian and to the Magna Carta. He told me that the Waterkeeper movement wasn’t begun back in the late 1960s by a group of hands-off environmentalists “who say you can look, but don’t touch,” but by a group of commercial fishermen on the Hudson River in New York fighting corporations dumping toxins into the water and literally killing their livelihoods.

Bobby has a keen memory. Without my reminding him about my involvement with the Cree, he said, “If you’re a lumber company or run a dam in Cree country and you’re responsible for dumping arsenic and dioxins and raising the level of mercury in Cree waters, you have to be held responsible. If a Cree child eats that fish with mercury in it and struggles by Grade 2 or 3 with learning difficulties, this is child abuse. If a lumber company dumps dioxins and arsenic in the water and adults in the community who depend on that water are sickened, this is assault and battery, even murder. If acid rain falls into a lake and kills off the fish that the community depends on, it’s theft.” Waterkeeper’s aim, clearly, is not just to hold polluters and energy companies accountable, but to make it clear that safe water is the right of the people.

A great cause, this Waterkeeper Alliance, one that draws liberal and conservative, democrat and republican, hunter and tree hugger to it — just look at their enrolment — but would it fly in Indian country, with a people who are wary of outsiders because all outsiders have ever seemed to do is come and promise, then take? Hence my next question: why should the Cree trust an organization like Bobby’s?

“We’re a grassroots organization,” Bobby answered, “from the bottom up. If the Cree aren’t involved, it won’t work.” He explained that the Cree own their water and are the natural protectors of it. “Put it this way. Someone wants to take the water from the Cree. I’ll guarantee that there are already plans on paper to take it from them.” We both paused after that. I knew that what he said was true. I’d attended a meeting just a couple of days before that had verified it. “The Cree live on and by their waterways,” Bobby continued. “It’s up to them to call the shots.”

About this meeting I’d attended. On August 11, I headed back to Moosonee and was met by a small crew from Lake Ontario Waterkeeper: Mark Mattson and his articling student, Joanna Bull, vice-president Krystyn Tully, and Peter Faye, their legal counsel for an upcoming hearing in Toronto on the government’s electricity plan. William and Pam Tozer were, once again, our amazing hosts.

Before the meeting, Mark explained the difference between Ontario Power Generation (OPG) and OPA, two groups I thought were of the same parcel. OPG builds and operates dams, as well as making the deals with those affected. OPA is a group created by Queen’s Park that has been charged with developing an electricity plan for the next 20 years and beyond. From what I can still tell, neither seems to claim to speak for what the other is doing.

At the meeting, William and Pamela, their youngest son Ben, Gord Innes, a local Cree entrepreneur, Carman Tozer, William’s brother and principal of the Moose Factory high school, and Charlie Cheechoo, deputy chief of Moose Factory First Nation, made up most of the audience. This was a warm and sunny Monday afternoon, after all, and with just a weekend to inform people, we’d expected a light crowd.

Brian Hay, OPA’s director of corporate communications, gave us a 40-minute PowerPoint presentation, much of it about Ontario’s projected future electricity needs. But I began to wonder after 10 minutes if he understood his audience at all. With the air conditioning off so that we could hear him, I grew impatient, then sleepy. What did this have to do with the Moose River basin, with the lives of the many thousands of people who live under Treaty 9? Did Mr. Hay know that the residents of Moosonee and Moose Factory pay some of the highest hydro bills in all of Ontario? And here he was telling a funny story about how a rich man in Toronto’s fancy Rosedale complains that his energy bill is astronomical.

Mr. Hay finally began narrowing down to James Bay. And what he said certainly woke me up. Of Ontario Power Authority’s future hydroelectric plans, the great majority were going to come from the west coast of James Bay, and it was the wide Moose River I stared at sparkling in the sunlight just a hundred yards out the window that was going to be the victim. It really wasn’t a rumour. I’d finally heard the words from the government, from the Great White Father. And OPA has great big plans.

The river systems that run into James Bay are north-running rivers, a massive part of Ontario’s Arctic watershed. All of these rivers that OPA has in its crosshairs — the Moose, the Abitibi, the Mattagami, the Albany (Ontario’s last great free-flowing river, and yes, it’s in OPA’s sights, too), among others — are slated for a staggering number of dams and generating stations. These are the same rivers that are the lifeblood of the Cree and were once the lifeblood of a young Canada as it grew into a nation on the soft back of the fur trade.

In the Moose River basin, all rivers eventually feed into the Moose, which passes by Moosonee and Moose Factory just before emptying into James Bay. And with three major power stations with dams on the Abitibi (Island Falls, Abitibi Canyon and Otter Rapids) and a number of dams on the Mattagami approximately 50 km west, you can clearly see their impact: sandbars building up between the two communities, and rivers that are already naturally shallow far more so. And this, just from a handful of dams dozens of kilometres upstream.

Some OPA potential hydro projects are “small” in scope, anywhere from two to 10 megawatts of power. Enough to very comfortably run communities the size of Moosonee and Moose Factory combined. Others are much larger, one up to 490 megawatts, enough to run full-on cities. But it’s the sheer number of sites OPA wants to build or “upgrade” that startled me. None of them are nearly the size of Hydro-Québec’s biggest James Bay generating stations, whose reservoirs alone have flooded more than 10,000 sq. km and ruined an ancient way of life. But their combined impact will affect the Cree on the west coast of James Bay just as brutally as it did to the Cree on the Quebec side, this time in increments, on smaller but many more parcels of land.

I walked away from that meeting with one of the worst headaches of my life. It wasn’t Mr. Hay’s fault. After all, he was just the messenger, and he took the challenge to come up to a community that made it clear to him they feel a lot of information is missing.

What I think gave me the headache is that I found out in that meeting, as did the community members present, that the Ontario Energy Board holds its public hearing beginning on September 8, where OPA hopes to have its plan approved. These meetings will certainly begin putting into motion actions that hugely affect the Moose Cree. But somehow, this band that will feel the greatest impact has been left off the invitation list. And as the wise Fred Hunter, executive director of the Moose Cree First Nation put it, once the hearings are over, the government will begin working as if these are approved plans. Fred should know. He’s worked in Native politics on the national and community level for a long time.

I took a couple of Aspirins that night and swallowed down the understanding that at least OPA now has notice from the communities of Moose Factory and Moosonee that they want to be involved in any future discussion, and that it would be willful blindness on the part of OPA to try and claim that their own process to date has been sufficient. Not exactly a victory, but notice on both sides seems to have at least been declared.

I spent another week after the meeting travelling parts of what the Moose Cree call Mushkegowuk, their traditional lands. If you look at a map of Mushkegowuk, it looks like a giant pair of lungs, and I think in many ways it is. This area contains some of the last true wilderness in Ontario, covered in black spruce, poplar and birch, teeming with pickerel, pike, and sturgeon, home to moose, caribou, marten, wolf, bear and fox, the rivers running through it like capillaries.

William and his brother Carman took me on a 100-km freighter canoe trip on the Moose River, fishing by day and camping on islands at night. We talked about all kinds of things. How virtually no one in the communities seem to know of these massive plans, and how when they do find out, their brief surprise leads to a sad feeling of inevitability. How virtually every single person I talked to understood the grave consequences to not only their own lives, but to the lives of their children and grandchildren. At times, I felt like the messenger of doom.

We talked about how Mark Mattson pointed out that southern Ontario is hungry for green power. Mark questions how green this OPA plan really is when there’s been no meaningful talk of community involvement, of environmental concerns and sustainability, no consideration yet given to the local ecosystem, especially to its thousands of human inhabitants. OPA is simply kick-starting once more a plan first set into motion and then briefly shelved in the late ’80s and early ’90s to develop some of Ontario’s finest and most historical waters. This plan isn’t green at all, despite the attempt to sell it that way in southern Ontario.

Travelling the Moose River in high summer takes skill and years of experience. An already shallow and rocky river, it’s become much more so with the building of dams on feeder rivers to the south. William and Carman and I fished the deeper pools for pickerel, ate a shore lunch of goose cooked over a fire, and talked more about how OPA plans will directly affect their community, their family, and their livelihoods.

The Moose Cree are a river people. Their highways and grocery stores are often these rivers. “They get their way, and my daughter won’t be able to do this when she’s 20,” William said to me as we sat on the bank and watched the water flow by. “I think for people down south, this country is out of sight, out of mind.” I worry he’s right.

As Bobby Kennedy mentioned, Waterkeeper Alliance is a grassroots organization. It won’t work without the Cree’s involvement here. When William recently agreed to serve as the waterkeeper for the Moose River basin, I admit I was surprised. He’s a bushman, an independent thinker, and not particularly politically minded. He’s at once a hunter and an environmentalist. Actually, I soon realized, William is the perfect waterkeeper for his homeland.

This is not to say that William will be fighting this fight alone. Interest is strong in the communities on the west coast of James Bay to not only find out what plans for them are afoot in southern Ontario, but to be actively involved in them. After all, they watched what their cousins across the bay in Quebec went through not so long ago. From outside the community, Gord Downie, Mark Mattson, and many others have wholeheartedly thrown in their support.

William and I had a chance to meet with the newly elected chief of the Moose Factory First Nation, Norm Hardisty Jr., as well as some of his band council, including Deputy Chief Charlie Cheechoo, wise Fred Hunter, and negotiator Ernest Rickard. They seemed truly appreciative of William’s concerns, and it appears the concerns are mutual.

I asked Chief Hardisty for his thoughts. “Moose Cree First Nation,” he says, “does not oppose resource development, but we will ensure that all development meets our consent and the environmental standards as addressed by our elders and ancestral principles and values. Furthermore, consultation with development in our homelands must be meaningful and applied in a manner acceptable to the Moose Cree First Nation.”

Maybe this is the best way to deal with such massive plans on Cree land: Chief Hardisty and council working politically from the top down, and William and other concerned community members working from the grassroots up. Knowledge is power, and the more tools the Moose Cree have to make sure they are equal players in the 21st century scramble for “renewable” energy (I haven’t even mentioned OPA’s dreams for harnessing James Bay’s howling winds), the better off they will be in deciding for themselves what is best for their people and ecology.

William won’t ever admit he’d believe in a shaman’s visions. But I will. All of these whispers about earthquakes and visions of tsunamis sweeping many Cree away. It seems to me that the James Bay frontier is certainly a political, and especially environmental fault line. And I know that when tsunamis recede, they take the water with them, leaving in their wake the sand and rock, the gasping fish, the detritus, and, most certainly, a people’s way of life.

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