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The James Bay Project: Three Gorges Dam of the West

Covering a huge portion of Canada’s Quebec province equal in size to that of the entire state of New York, this is North America’s Three Gorges Dam. The James Bay Project is simply vast in size and yet it is probably a megaproject that few know much about. 

Composed of eight separate hydroelectric generating stations, numerous dams and reservoirs which spread over an area measuring roughly 350,000 km2 (135,136 sq mi), this was one of the world’s largest energy projects and cost upwards of $20 billion to complete. The project officially got underway in 1971 and I can tell you know right now, it was a rocky ride until it was halted in 1994. Environmental and social concerns, lawsuits, riots, inter-union battles and dash of the Canadian mafia – this story has it all. 

James Bay  

James Bay sits at the southern edge of its mammoth brother, the Hudson Bay. If you look at a map, James Bay looks a bit like a strange small growth hanging off the bottom of the Hudson. To the west of the bay lies Ontario, and to the east, Quebec – where the focus of our video falls. 

To call this area remote would be underselling it. From the La Grande 1 power station, part of the James Bay Project, to Montreal by car is an ass-numbing 1,380 km (857 miles), which should take you in the region of 17 hours – and that’s assuming the weather is OK. This part of Canada experiences the kind of winters that few of us ever encounter. Its record low temperature was a frosty -44C (-48.3) and even its average low in February is -27.3C (-17.1F). 

An area of pristine beauty that is often compared to Siberia, with similar tundra and forests of black spruce trees. The area is home to a wide range of animals including lynxes, black bears, foxes as well as the largest concentration of caribou anywhere on the planet. 

On the human side, the area has been home to the native Cree and Inuit people for many centuries and as we will get to later in the video, the fusing of this supposed progress and the indigenous people who called the area home has not been easy.

This vast swath of land includes hundreds of rivers that drain into James Bay, many of which are relatively small, but some of which are large powerful rivers – perhaps, good places to build dams. 

Surveying 

People began eyeing the hydroelectric potential of these rivers back in the 1950s. Water surveys were carried on the Nottaway, Broadback and Rupert Rivers by a team working for the Shawinigan Water & Power Company to gauge the possibility of diverting these rivers which they believed would boost the output of their existing power stations. 

Things changed in 1963 with the nationalisation of the privately-owned utility companies and preliminary findings from the survey were now passed on to Hydro Quebec, who initially chose to pass on any development, choosing instead to focus on projects on the North Shore. However, by 1965, the company’s eyes were once again drawn to this area. 

Now, to put all this in context, we do require a little social history at this point, because what happened in Quebec in the 1960s was quite extraordinary. The Quiet Revolution as it has come to be known was a series of sweeping socio-political and socio-cultural changes across the province that dramatically altered the cultural landscape.  

This included the secularization of the government, the introduction of a welfare state, a re-focusing on federalist ideals, the enormous investment in education and lastly as we are discussing today, huge infrastructure projects. The Quiet Revolution, which by the way is the most brilliantly Canadian name for a revolution I could ever have imagined, drove power from the church and large private companies back towards the Quebecoise – the people of Quebec. It certainly wasn’t all perfect, but in terms of large scale social changes, perhaps more of the world should be studying Quebec in the 1960s. 

Anyway, in 1967, with the revolution nearing its peak, Hydro Quebec increased exploration work on the La Grande and Eastmain rivers by sending hundreds into the area via aeroplanes to study the feasibility of constructing hydroelectric dams. 

Development    

Robert Bourassa
Robert Bourassa by Thomas Kierans is licensed under
CC-BY-SA

Champion in chief of the project was a politician by the name of Robert Bourassa, who in the late 1960s was considered a backbencher but whose rise to power would come quickly. Bourassa and the president of Hydro-Québec, Roland Giroux met in 1969 to discuss the project and it became a key component during Bourassa’s Liberal Party leadership contest and his victory in Quebec’s general election in 1970. 

With the election sewn up, Bourassa moved quickly and in 1970 he travelled to New York to secure funding for the project. Incidentally, during a period known as the October Crisis in Quebec when the Front de libération du Québec (Quebec Liberation Front) kidnapped the provincial Deputy Premier Pierre Laporte and British diplomat James Cross – eventually killing Laporte. In response, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, a series of emergency measures designed to be used in the event of war or major insurrection, which curtailed personal freedom and deployed the army onto the streets. It was only the third time such an act had ever been enacted in Canada, with the two previous occasions coming during the World Wars. 

In 1971, Bourassa unveiled the plans that would go on to become the James Bay Project which included US engineering firm Bechtel overseeing construction – which no doubt explains the trip to New York.

The hydroelectric plans came with two different options. Either the dams would be placed on the Nottaway, Broadback, Rupert and Harricana Rivers in the south, or on rivers to the north which included La Grande and Eastmain Rivers. Both options were carefully studied and in 1972 the northern option was chosen as it was deemed more cost-effective and would cause less harm to the forest areas surrounding it. The southern rivers were also believed to be too silty which would have made the whole damming process considerably harder. 

Riots, Mafia and the Indigenous people

If the size and scale of the James Bay Project were quite astonishing, then the build-up to it was far from dull. Now, I know building a road doesn’t necessarily get many excited, but how about building a 700 kilometres (430 mi) road through some of the most difficult terrain on the planet? The James Bay Road in itself was a huge achievement and acted as the access road for the entire project, running from Matagami to Radisson, which was founded in 1975 to accommodate workers for the James Bay Project. The road is fully paved and well maintained even through the harsh Canadian winter, though you might want to plan carefully should you ever find yourself on it. It has only one service station and includes the longest stretch of road in Canada without a service stop, coming in at 381 km (236 miles).  

Once the road had been built, work could begin on the dams and the reservoirs. Now, remember how I remarked about the Quiet Revolution being a great Canadian name for social change, well, between 1970 and 1974, things were far from quiet on the construction projects. But this wasn’t down to accidents, or weather – or even the wild animals that tend to roam the area – no, this was down to inter-union rivalries.

Yes, you heard that right. In the early years of the James Bay project, there were no fewer than 540 incidents involving rival unions, some of which resulted in bloody fighting. You couldn’t make this up, could you? At this point in Quebec, employment possibilities were fiercely contested, principally between two rival unions, the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ) and the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CNTU). 

This culminated in the barely believable events of the 21st March 1974 when members of the FTQ union rioted on the building site of the new LG 2 power station in response to one sub-contractor refusing to fire two workers allied to the CNTU. And when I say rioted, they absolutely tore the place apart, using their bulldozers to destroy the building site which was then set on fire. The damage caused that day is believed to have totalled some $34 million. The government initially brought a lawsuit against the unions but this was later settled out of court for just CAD $200,000 – which in my admittedly limited legal opinion sounds a little fishy.     

OK, if that was strange, it gets even weirder. The investigation unearthed a catalogue of misdemeanours involving the powerful unions at the time and their links to the Montreal mafia. The Cliche Commission, which investigated the riot and the role of the unions, reported,

“tales of nepotism, bribery, sabotage, blackmail and intimidation; charges of union organizers with criminal records who gave lessons in how to break legs; thugs-for-hire who would happily beat up a rival union organizer’s teenager or strangle their dog.”

I honestly don’t even know what to say at this point, except that I don’t think I’ve ever even considered the fact that they might be a Canadian mafia. Eventually, it seems that this was all straightened out – or conveniently brushed under the carpet – but another massive problem soon loomed. 

As I mentioned earlier, this particular part of Quebec is home to various groups of indigenous people. The largest of which was the Cree, numbering roughly 5,000, but also the Inuit further north which includes around 3,500 people. I’m sure you will be absolutely shocked to hear that the native people in this area were not consulted over the plans that would flood vast areas of their lands. Anger quickly erupted as the Quebec government was accused of violating treaties that had guaranteed the protection of the Cree and Inuit lands – why does all of this sound so familiar? 

The Cree fought back and hired lawyers to argue their case. At this point, a split between the main Canadian government and the Quebec government appeared, with the national government backing the Cree claims, while Bourassa’s government fought an increasingly hopeless battle against them. At one point, it seemed the case was destined for the Supreme Court, but a deal was eventually struck and the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement was signed in November 1974 which included limitations on further expansions, extended environmental protection and a handy CA$225 million to be used for education and development purposes within the Cree and Inuit communities.   

Phase 1

After all of that, we haven’t even spoken about the actual construction yet. Phase 1 took roughly 14 years to complete and included large scale water diversions of the Eastmain, Opinaca and Caniapiscau rivers, to the newly formed dammed reservoirs on the La Grande river, which increased the average flow of the river from 1,700 to 3,300 m3/s – that’s a volume equal to half of the Goodyear blimp passing through the river every second.  

La Grande-1, generating station
La Grande-1, generating station by P199 is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Three power stations were constructed during this phase; La Grande 2 (now known as the Robert Bourassa), La Grande 3 and La Grande 4. LG 2 was built between 1972 and 1981 and remains the largest power generating site in North America with an installed capacity of 5,616 megawatts. And as the generating station is also underground – 137.2 meters (450 ft) to be exact – it is also the largest underground power station on the planet.

The dam itself is located 6 kilometres (3.7 miles) upstream from the generating station and measures 162 metres (531ft) in height and has a huge length of 2.8 km (1.7 miles). 

Phase 1 was rounded out with the construction of the LG3 and LG4 dams, along with five reservoirs which amounted to a colossal area of 11,300 km2 (4,362 sq miles) – which is around the size of Wales. Everything about this project was on a truly massive scale with 155,000,000 cubic metres (203,000,000 cu yd) of fill, 138,000 tons of steel, 550,000 tons of cement, and nearly 70,000 tons of explosives used during phase 1 alone. A total of 215 dikes and smaller dams were constructed in the area, with one dyke, in particular, reaching an extraordinary 56 stories.  

A vast network of transmission lines measuring 4,800 km (3,000 mi) was installed to bring power to southern Quebec and also eventually to connect to the U.S. power grid. Phase 1 was officially completed in 1984. 

Phase 2 

The second phase of this quite staggering project got underway in 1989 and included the construction of five secondary power plants; La Grande-1, La Grande-2A, Laforge-1, Laforge-2 and Brisay, which added a further 5,200 MW of generating capacity. Phase 2 also included three new reservoirs amounting to a further 1,288 km2 (497 sq miles) – which is bigger than the whole city of Los Angeles. 

Now, let’s just take one of these power stations, the La Grande -1. At just 25 metres (82ft) it’s not exactly a giant but does stretch to 2.5 km (1.5 miles) in length. Its dam volume is 1,070,000 m3 (38,000,000 cu ft), which is enough to fill the Albert Hall in London 11 and a half times. The power station has an installed capacity of 1,436 MW and includes 12 fixed-blade propeller-type turbines, eight of which were made by General Electric, while the other four came from GEC Alsthom. 

Great Whale River Project

If you thought the Cree and the Inuit were furious back in the 70s, the proposals during phase two of another extension, known as the Great Whale River Project, caused international consternation. The plans, that were sometimes referred to as James Bay II, consisted of the Great Whale Complex and other dams on the Great Whale, Nottaway and Rupert rivers. 

But here’s the real kicker. The electricity being produced by this third phase would not supply power to Quebec, or even to Canada, but the large, noisy neighbour to the south – the United States. A collection of states in the U.S northeast had signed a contract with Hydro-Quebec to send electricity to the US and this heavily contributed to the unpopularity of the project. 

By the early 1980s, the natural water flow around the area had been severely affected, while hunting grounds for the Cree had also been lost. While the initial efforts to halt the Great Whale River Project proved ineffective, once the information became public it prompted a mutual backlash in both the US and Canada and in 1992 the U.S states withdrew from the agreement. Two years later, the project was scrapped altogether. 

Impact

We like to assume that any renewable energy source comes with few environmental or social impacts, but as we’ve seen with the Three Gorges Dam – that’s just not the case. Speaking of the monumental Chinese undertaking, if you feel particularly inspired about dams after this video and want to know more about the Three Gorges, we did a video on that, many many months.

Perhaps the biggest environmental issue has been the release of mercury into the water. The James Bay Project flooded vast areas of boreal forest resulting in the natural release of mercury from the flooded vegetation which could not be dispersed and diluted as it normally would in natural situations. The exact effects are still a little murky, but what is certainly clear is that northern Quebec’s Cree now have the highest measured methyl-mercury concentration of all Canadian First Nations, while mercury levels in flatfish have risen fourfold, while in some pike varieties that figure is closer to seven. 

Other environmental impacts include a severe alteration in water flow with massive increases in winter run-off rates (the discharge of surface water), thought to have increased by 500%, affecting trees near the shoreline and generally resulting in the slow decaying of flora around the rivers.

The social impact on the Cree and the Inuit has also been enormous. These were communities that had very little interaction with the outside world before the construction of the James Bay Road. As in the United States, the result of the interaction between native people and “modern civilisation” has not also been pretty. Poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, lack of clean water and adequate sanitation, poor housing, low standards of education – I could probably go on but I’ll stop there. These issues are not restricted to the Cree and the Inuit and are felt across Canada’s First Nations and it’s clear that progress doesn’t necessarily bring prosperity and health to all. 

The James Bay Project  

The James Bay project was a vast, messy affair. The eight power stations in the area now produce 83 terawatt-hours (TWh) a year – which is enough to power all of Belgium – but it came with significant environmental and social impacts as we’ve seen. 

As I said right at the start of the video, this seems to be a megaproject that hasn’t received a great deal of attention. Whether it’s because of its remote location, the questionable impact on the native people and the environment or simply because it happened a few decades ago and has now fallen through the cracks, but this was an enormous undertaking that has dramatically altered a vast area of our planet and the lives of thousands. If I was to hazard a guess, I would say perhaps the Canadian government doesn’t necessarily want a great deal of attention placed on this area – but who knows. Maybe it’s even that mysterious Candian mafia.

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