The Cree Indian way of life has been fundamentally changed by the James Bay hydroelectric project. The Cree are a group of about 12,000 Indians that live in northern Quebec. The Cree were a nomadic hunting and gathering tribe, they lived off the land for generations upon generations, and they lived peacefully and did not bother anyone. They lived sustainable and did not exploit their resources, and this is why they were able to maintain their land and way of life for so long. It was not until the 1970's and the start of the James Bay hydroelectric project did the Cree's way of life begin to fade from nomadic hunting people to settled communities with modern houses and services, and this not was by choice. (web) The James Bay hydroelectric project is a project constructed by Hydro Quebec, which involved blocking and diverging of several rivers such as the La Grande.
The effects of such a project would be disastrous to the land and environment. Thousands of square kilometres were flooded, animal migration routes changed, and fish were poisoned. Hydro Quebec would end up producing so much electricity that they ended up with a surplus and ended up selling the excess to the United States. In the end Hydro Quebec did not need the electricity to sustain themselves but instead were ruining the lives of 12,000 Cree for economic reasons. (web) The James Bay hydroelectric project caused a detrimental change to the cultural landscape of the Cree's habitat and environment.
The project caused mass flooding, trap lines to be annihilated, migration roots of caribou to change and methyl mercury levels in the water to increase to toxic levels poisoning fish and making the water undrinkable. The project also caused the cultural ecology of the Cree people to change drastically. Cultural ecology is the two-way relationship between the Cree people and their environment. (Jordan-Bychkov pg. 19) Since the Cree lived off the land and made a way of life trapping, hunting and gathering, the effects of the flood on their way of life changed one hundred and eighty degrees for environmental determinists to possibilism. Finally the James Bay Project forced the Cree people from a vernacular cultural region of no sharp boarders, to a functional cultural region based on political and economical boundaries. (Jordan-Bychkov pg. 12) The project flooded all of the main staples needed to maintain the Cree way of life, therefore, the Cree people were forced to move to cities and get jobs by Hydro Quebec and the provincial Quebec Government. (web) The James Bay project had a detrimental effect on the cultural landscape of the Cree people.
Cultural landscape can be defined as the visible material landscape that cultural groups create while living on the land, it reflects the basic necessities of humans. (Jordan-Bychkov pg. 29) The Cree way of life consisted of hunting, fishing, trapping, and overall making a living off the land, and the James Bay Project had a huge impact on this way of life. Phase one of the James Bay hydroelectric project called La Grande River diverted four major rivers and flooded approximately 4,425 miles of Cree land. Hydro Quebec did this without even asking the Cree people's permission. (web) This flooding caused a huge reservoir due to the dam, and fish in the reservoir to have five times the methyl mercury levels than in naturally occurring lakes in the area. (web) The increase in methyl mercury was due to the decomposition of organic matter due to the flood. Also ten thousand caribou drowned the year that the dams was build, because their migration routes where no longer present. (web) In previous years no more than five hundred caribou had ever died from drowning. (web) Extensive road ways had to be build in order for the workers, equipment, machinery and supplies to be transported to northern Quebec to construct the La Grande River dam, which would end up being finished by 1979 and flooded over ten thousand kilometres of the Cree people's land. The dam would end up being as tall as a fifty storey tall building. (web) The construction of all the roads meant that forests had to be cut down and therefore trap lines would no longer exist. (web) This destruction of the Cree land depicts how the James Bay Project destroyed the Cree people's way of life.
Eventually the Cree ended up signing the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in November 1975, which entailed the Cree surrendering approximately 981,610 square kilometres of land, in return the Cree where given $225 million dollars over twenty years as well as community land with rights to trap and hunt. (web) Basically the Cree had no choice but to sign the agreement because the Cree's land had already been extremely destructed that it was almost impossible to continue to their traditional way of live. The James Bay Project forced the cultural ecology of the Cree people from environmental determinist to possibilism. Cultural ecology is defined as a two-way relationship between people and the environment. Environmental determinist is the belief that the physical environment provides a dominant force in shaping culture, essentially humans are clay to be moulded by nature. (Jordan-Bychkov pg 20) Possibilism is the belief that people mould their own culture and the environment plays a little role, basically the environment offers possibilities for economics and politics growth in culture. (Jordan-Bychkov pg 21) The Cree people where environmental determinists in the fact that their culture revolved around nature, without nature the Cree Indians had no culture because their way of life was based upon hunting, trapping and fishing.
With the James Bay Project and the destruction of the Cree land they were forced to assimilate and become possibilists. The Quebec government as well as Hydro Quebec saw the Cree land, in terms of its economic potential for hydroelectric power. (web) Soon the roads were being cut through Cree trapping areas, and camps were being overtaken with little regard for the cultural rights of the people. (web) Eventually one group of Cree where not let off the reserve to set out to hunt and fish but instead where forced to find jobs. (web) The Indian Affairs Branch of the Canadian government eventually set up vocational training programs in school and towns for the Cree in order to teach the French language so they could have access to a wider variety of jobs. The government promoted these programs of community development, as well as local self-governments, in order to try to make the Cree people more "Canadian" or possibilism. (web) Log homes where build for Cree who wanted to stay on the reserves. The Cree children where send to boarding school nine months of the year to receive formal education. (web) All this was happening just before and while the James Project was being built, but eventually the Cree had had enough and started to fight back taking the government to court and eventually winning $225 million. The Cree still had to give up their way of life and were assimilated into western culture because they had sold all their land, which was ruined anyway.
The Cree where forced to move off of their land and buy modern luxuries like large televisions and homes. Young Cree are left not knowing what to do they do not seem to fit in with the rest of society and they have no other way of life, therefore the unemployment rate for young Cree is about double that of the rest of Quebec. (web) Young Cree will also never learn their traditional way of life because it is not possible due to the mass destruction caused by the James Bay Project. Most of the Cree have now been assimilated and traditional ways of life dead. This is how the Cree were forced from environmental determinists to possibilism. Finally the James Bay Project changed the Cree's living conditions from vernacular cultural region and tried to force them into a functional cultural region by destroying and taking over their land in which had be sustained by the Cree people for generations and not exploited of its resources. The Cree living in the far North or Quebec segregated from the rest of the southern Quebec Eru o-Canadian functional cultural region.
(Horning, James pg. 57) A vernacular cultural region can be defined as a region perceived to exist by its inhabitants, its has no sharp boarders and is based upon the physical environmental features. (Jordan-Bychkov pg 12) A functional cultural region that has been formed to function politically, socially or economically, they have clearly defined boarders and land is owned by people or controlled by governments. (Jordan-Bychkov pg 10) The Cree originally were a nomadic hunting, fishing and trapping cultural, they lived off the land and sustained themselves independently of the rest of the world. Summers were a time of relative relaxation, of dances, marriage feasts, trading, and social events. Winters required hard work and social solitude and fall and spring was the time the hunting and gathering in order to make it through the hard winters. This way of life was possible because of the location of their settlement, where caribou, forests, lakes and rivers, and fishing was abundant.
Trap lines had been passed down for generations as well as the migration routes of the caribou. (web) In the 1970' with the start of construction of the James Bay hydroelectric project the Cree's land had been flooded and the natural environment destroyed. The Quebec government and Hydro Quebec forced the Cree to a new cultural region call reserves where they could no longer live with no boarders, no government, and no real economics. The Cree would not receive an benefits if they left the boarders of the reserve, children were forced to go to school and adults were taught about politics and, self government to manage their people. (web) Some young Cree could not stand living on the reserves and decided to move to small towns in the area in search of work. Everywhere the Cree went they where forced to deal with a functional cultural region.
They would no longer ever be able to live a traditional nomadic vernacular way of life. It was all due to the greedy Quebec Hydro who took over the Cree land, flooded and destroyed parts of the environment that had been in the Cree culture for generation, and for what, no more than money. (web) Quebec Hydro ruined a Cree vernacular cultural region and forced them to a functional cultural region in the economic search for power and money, in the form of electricity. (web) The Cree way of life was changed beyond recognition due to the construction of the James Bay hydroelectric project. The James Bay Project caused a serious negative change to the cultural landscape of the Cree's environment. Due to flooding the caribou's migration patterns changes and many died, fish where poisoned by methyl mercury levels being five times higher than usual, and the trapping lines were ruined due to roads being build right through the forests.
The Roads where build to transport supplies, workers, and machinery to build the dam, all this destroyed the Cree's only way of life or hunting, fishing and trapping. Secondly the James Bay Project drastically changed the cultural ecology of the Cree people from environmental determinist to possibilism. The Cree could no longer have a two way relationship with the environment and nature because of the destruction caused by the project, but rather were forced to view the land as a possibility for success. Finally the Cree people where forced from a vernacular cultural region to a functional cultural region. The Cree were made to leave their land in northern Quebec where they lived for generations with no boarders to reserves where they could not leave and that had sharp boarders. Quebec Hydro and the Quebec provincial government destroyed the Cree people's way of life forever, because they had no respect for them or their way of life.
Hydro Quebec was only interested in economic power and money through electricity, and did not care about 12,000 Cree or their land.
Horning, James F. Social and environmental impacts of the James Bay hydroelecrtiv project. London: Mcgill-Queen's University Press, 1999.
James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (online). Available: web March 6, 2003.
Hydro Quebec (online). Nama goose, Bill. James Bay Cree. (online). Chance, Norman. And Conklin, Paul. The Crees of Northern Quebec A photographic essay. (online). Fox, Mike, Canada in Indians' dam pays-outs begin (online) Available: web March 6, 2003.
Fox, Mike. Dam deal divides Quebec Indians. (online) Available: web March 6, 2003.
Jordan-Bychkov, Terry G. and Do mosh, Mona. The Human Mosaic A Thematic introduction to Cultural Geography. New York. W.H. Freeman and Company. 1999.