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Book Review:

Sean McCutcheon, Electric Rivers, Black Rose Books, Montreal/New York, 1991, 194 pp.

As an example of enormous engineering prowess, nothing in Canada except perhaps the more recent Confederation Bridge rivals the James Bay project in northern Quebec. The social, economic, and environmental impacts of the project have reached out from the wilds and influenced the governments of Quebec and of Canada, and even of the states of Vermont and New York. Cultural wars have been waged and continue to wage over the construction of the La Grande complex and its indefinitely delayed successor, the Great Whale complex. The early history of the James Bay project, from its conception in 1970 as a campaign promise and dream of Robert Bourassa to the completion of the first phase of the La Grande complex and subsequent political wrangling, is the subject of Electric Rivers, by Sean McCutcheon.

The James Bay hydroelectric project in Quebec is a prime example of the impact of science and technology on Canadian society. Sean McCutcheon's book, Electric Rivers, tells the story of the James Bay project. From his first words in the introduction, McCutcheon captivates his reader, and goes on to present a relatively impartial history of the James Bay project. McCutcheon is primarily interested in an examination of the people and cultures caught up in the project and the impacts they had on it, from the obsessed Bourassa to the Indians and Inuit.

Taking the role of an independent investigator, McCutcheon explores as much of the large scale economic, environmental, and social impacts as possible without becoming too technical in any of the three areas. McCutcheon also personalizes the story a bit by describing his trips into the James Bay region and through summaries of conversations he has had with various people affected by the project. Since he seems to have had contact with primarily environmentalists, scientists, and natives, McCutcheon's narrative seems to have something of a favorable slant toward the environmental and sociological opposition to the project. Perhaps this is simply because he couldn't get interviews with people like Bourassa, and was forced to rely on quotes and writings, the result being that he wasn't able to represent the really personal, human side driving the project forward. Even with the greater personal content from the opposition, the text is still well balanced and doesn't really make any judgment about the project one way or the other.

McCutcheon starts with an introduction describing the enormity of the James Bay Project. He writes about its physical size, its massive cost, and about the impact it has had not only in Quebec, but also in the northeastern United States. He gets the reader started on a good note, providing a hook that makes the reader want to find out why the James Bay complex was built, and utilizes a readable style that makes even a history book such as this one difficult to put down.

The author follows up his introduction by explaining what makes the James Bay area different from other areas at a similar latitude. He describes the plants, animals, and peoples who live in Northern Quebec, and the geography that explains why Northern Quebec is so ideal for the generation of hydroelectric power. Some general history behind the project in the early chapters helps the reader see the reasons behind the project, not only in the technological sense but also from a social perspective.

This book seems to be primarily targeted at people who are interested in the social impacts of large technological projects in general. The text is really more of a case study of how mega, or giga, as the author describes James Bay, projects impact society and the environment. As such, the book doesn't delve into any great detail about the engineering of the project itself, nothing more than short discussions about the diversion of rivers and moving of dirt, so the book is definitely not targeted at civil engineers interested in how the project was built. The author focus's first on social issues; how both Bourassa and Levesque leveraged the project in their election campaigns, playing on the need for Quebecers to prove themselves to the world, how the Indians and Inuit lost hunting grounds and sacred sites to the rising reservoirs, and how the Quebec economy benefitted from the project, particularly the consulting engineering (SNC, Lavalin, Bectel) and construction industries. Especially interesting is the realization that the Quebecois, desperate to prove themselves as capable as the Anglophones, were prepared to push aside another minority culture, just as they were pushed aside to make way for the tide of English in Canada's early years.

In addition to the large scale social issues, McCutcheon also explores smaller scale issues which would go on to impact the entire Quebec government. In particular, the discussion of the labor problems at the La Grande complex construction sites showed how the expulsion of a unionized worker could expand to a strike, riot and destruction of a construction camp, a commission looking at the cause of the riot, and findings of labor patronage. The findings of the commission made Bourassa look `weak and corrupt', and may have played a part in his loss of the 1976 provincial election.

The philosophical differences between Bourassa and Levesque and the clashes between the Indians and the Quebecois interests are described in an engaging and human manner. McCutcheon uses quotes and descriptions to humanize his subjects, and in doing so brings the story up from a dry history or technical document and makes it readable for a more general audience. A good example of McCutcheon's description of the clash between the Cree Indians and the interests of Quebec is where he tells the story of meetings that occurred in 1974. The author uses quotes from Einar Skinnarland, an adviser to the Crees, to discuss the differences between how the Quebec officials operated and how the Cree did. While the Quebec representatives preferred humorless, no nonsense legal negotiations, the Crees used humor and told stories.

The other major aspect of the James Bay project examined in McCutcheon's book is that of environmental impact, and how the Quebec government and the James Bay Development Corporation handled environmental issues. The balancing act between the environmental protectionism favored by the Inuit, Indians, and others is contrasted by the need for social, economic, and political development in Quebec. Bourassa in particular championed the economic aspects of the project, with the central goal of making Quebec economically self sufficient. The author contrasts this to the views of Levesque, who was more interested in making Quebec politically independent than in making it economically self sufficient. Bourassa tended to brush aside environmental issues, and the author paints him as willing to sacrifice the environment for economic gain.

The environmental aspect of the project made it an international issue. McCutcheon describes how the Cree and Inuit came together to bring the environmental impact of the project to the global stage. By taking their problems to the people of New York and Vermont, whose state governments are customers of Hydro-Quebec, they were able to have environmentally concerned citizens in those states lobby their governments to stop buying electricity from Quebec.

Electric Rivers is a well written, well organized overview of the James Bay project. McCutcheon does an excellent job of presenting his material, and the book makes for an enjoyable read. Overall, the book is an excellent introduction for a general audience to the James Bay project, and makes a good case study for those interested in the social and environmental impacts of the modern mega-project.


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