Producing North and South: A Political Geography of Hydro Development in Quebec

By Desbiens, Caroline | The Canadian Geographer, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Producing North and South: A Political Geography of Hydro Development in Quebec


Desbiens, Caroline, The Canadian Geographer


   Prolongement du corps social, l'espace est un ampute
   potentiel. Mais il est aussi la cave ou le grenier, le lieu
   ou sont entreposees les richesses futures. Et parmi
   celles-ci l'hydroelectricite qui, non seulement occupe
   une place essentielle dans l'economie actuelle du
   Quebec mais qui, de plus, occupe l'une des places
   fortes du champ symbolique quebecois. Autrement
   dit, ce qui est en cause dans la relation entre les
   Autochtones et les autres Quebecois a la Baje James
   et dans toutes les regions ou il est question de harnacher
   des rivieres, c'est l'integrite territoriale mais c'est
   aussi le developpement economique et l'image que les
   differentes communautes du Quebec se font de leur
   avenir. (Vincent 1988, p. 239)

Introduction

In talking about hydroelectricity as an economic as well as symbolic resource for the people of Quebec, Sylvie Vincent points to the conflicted geography of hydroelectric development in the province, especially since the beginning of the James Bay project in 1971. Indeed, the tapping of the region's hydroelectric potential for purposes of economic development was also the tapping of divergent Cree and Quebecois geographical imaginations and their corresponding physical spaces. Within these geographical imaginations, water flows freely through any purported division between nature and culture: a 'natural' resource, it is also the product of the social, political and cultural aspirations of two self-determining peoples. Imagined from southern Quebec, the geography of hydroelectricity has displayed a set of neocolonial relations, forming a mental map where objects are named and placed in hierarchical relationships with each other. The main floor is to the attic in the same way that culture is to nature, white to native, South to North. As elsewhere in Canada, the global geography of development is here turned on its head, since it is the resources of an underdeveloped North that are channelled south to feed the power grid of large Canadian and American industrial centres (Cohen 1994, pp. 35-36).

For the Francophone population, the dialectic between northern and southern Quebec is an important building block of the national and historical memory (see Morissonneau 1978; Hamelin 1980, 1998; Lacasse 1985; Courville et al. 1996; Courville 2000a,b). If, in the nineteenth century, movement towards the North enabled the pushing of the settlement frontier, that expansionist drive was pursued into the twentieth century more specifically under the rubric of 'development'. (1) For the Crees and other native inhabitants of the region, there is nothing abstract or imagined about this spatial order that channels resources away from local populations. (2) When the initial phase of development was undertaken on the La Grande river, the building of roads across the territory accompanied that of power lines; it is through these conduits that hydropower, as well as important forestry (and some mining) resources, flows from Eeyou Istchee towards the Quebec population belt and beyond. (3) Cree people have taken part in those economic activities through employment and through their own companies, yet much work remains to be done to increase that involvement and achieve an equal balance of participation.

Although a territorial agreement was signed between the Crees and Inuit and the governments of Quebec and Canada in 1975, the new land-use regime it put into place has been regarded as largely inadequate to implement equal partnership with local communities in the development of the region. (4) The dualistic geography of North and South then seems to have placed the population of each sphere at the end of a relationship of production that keeps them apart by virtue of keeping them connected; and yet, even as it separates them economically, hydroelectric development aspires to bind people and places into a single territory. The desire for territorial integrity in Quebec finds a powerful symbol in the hundreds of kilometres of power lines that run along the territory, seemingly weaving together regions that could otherwise drift apart. …

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