Environmental meltdown on the 51st parallel: Parallel destinies

Parallel destinies

The future of clear-cuts may not be so clear cut after all
Photo: Marie-Ève Perreault

Surveyor exposes the mechanisms that bedevil resource settlement in two Northern Quebec hotspots

It was only 10 minutes into the flight over Quebec’s largest reservoir when I began to clue in to the fact that something was badly, drastically wrong.

It was a day that was just right for forest fires. Late July and rainless. The sky bright enough to sear your eyes. There was a crosswind coming from across the water that buffeted our plane and raised wavelets in the lakes on the island below us.

At 3,000 feet our pilot began to struggle for an angle to descend safely onto the 2,000-square-kilometre landmass that constitutes René-Levasseur Island. My decision to accompany a group of environmentalists on a survey expedition was motivated by a curiosity to see something of an old-growth ecosystem. Unlike Ontario, the Quebec government has never bothered to identify and inventory the areas of old-growth forest remaining inside the province.

Many groups, including Greenpeace in a recent report, stress the vital assets that the northern boreal (conifer) forest represents for the planet as a repository of biodiversity, recycler of water and carbon sink, absorbing and buffering us from some of the heating effects of greenhouse gas. But these same groups often charge that mining and logging development in the North is proceeding in a chaotic manner, in the absence of much of the scrutiny and requirements for public consultation that would characterize projects in more populated areas.


My trip to René-Levasseur Island, on the 51st parallel, was spurred by a desire to understand how environmentalists could move beyond specific controversies to demand a system of information-sharing that would lead to more transparent and accountable public decision-making on resource issues. René-Levasseur seemed a good starting point for such an investigation, because like much of the North, it lies at the confluence of varying development interests that complement and occasionally conflict with each other.

The territory, originally a peninsula, was isolated by a mammoth 1962 Hydro-Québec project that dammed the Manicouagan River, north of Baie-Comeau, and created the Manicouagan Reservoir. Protected for many years by its inaccessibility, the area began to be logged by the Kruger company in 2003. In the meantime, Manicouagan Minerals, a mining company, has also conducted nickel prospecting.

Since 2003, members of the non-profit group SOS Levasseur have been visiting the island with a view to collecting scientific data to press the case that the system is biologically rare enough to deserve protection. (Some SOS members hint that the system of logging roads, built by Kruger, could actually enhance the area’s preservation value by making it more accessible to eco-tourism.)

In 2003, after consulting with Kruger, the Quebec government created two reserves on René-Levasseur Island, for an area representing 400 square kilometres, or one-fifth of the island’s landmass. One of these reserves is located in the north of the island, in a region visible from a protected area across the reservoir, which is frequented by tourists. The other is centred around the kilometre-high and rock-crowned Mont Babel, in the island’s centre, where there is next to no valuable timber.

The Mont Babel precedent has led activists to fear that the government will fulfill its international commitments by protecting large tracts of barren tundra, in the province’s north, without paying attention to underprotected but commercially valuable ecosystems, like the boreal forest. Currently the portion of boreal forest protected in parks where there is no resource extraction permitted amounted to just 0.5 per cent.


Viewed from the air, the island presents an interlacing network of bog and spruce forests, ideal for moose habitat. The terrain features slow-growing conifers with veterans that exceed 120 years. To a novice, what is startling is the way some trees are literally eaten by the mosses that drape over them. Life in the forest in rarely a matter of one thing, but rather a promiscuity of plants and mosses and lichens that decay and grow and meld into each other.

The view of the clear-cuts, which is what had so disturbed me, did not leave us even as we sank into the survey zone. They loomed large behind the shrinking horizon and finally disappeared only a minute before our seaplane skimmed to a rest on a black lake.

The sight of two of my expedition-mates emerging from the cockpit with bulging sick bags provided a fitting lead-in to 18 days of challenges that would see me bedding down on logging roads, bushwhacking, toting an 80-litre pack over dead trees and spending uncounted hours with my nose suspended about two centimetres above the soil, cataloguing plants.

Olivier Riffon, 29, a university lecturer and SOS Levasseur member, explains the process that led the group to compile scientific data as a political strategy. Through an omission in legislation, the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE), created in 1978 to collect public input on development projects, is not authorized to investigate logging, which is governed by a non-public process through the Law on Forests. But when logging company Kruger proposed to build a dock to ship logs from then-pristine René-Levasseur Island, the dock, as a structure, fell under the BAPE’s mandate.

In a phone interview, Riffon recalls the paradox. "For the two docks [on the island and the mainland], the ecological impact was not gigantic." But when the hearings were held in January 2003, "it was the opportunity people found to go manifest their concerns about logging on the island. There were lots of people who said that the ecosystems on the island were particular."

The commissioner acknowledged the concerns, and while stressing that the hearing’s findings could only relate to the impact of the docks, he "recommended strongly that ecological studies be conducted on René-Levasseur Island prior to cutting." Out of that recommendation, the group developed a protocol for identifying an ancient forest ecosystem, using criteria such as tree ages and degrees of decomposition.

In Quebec, a majority of areas currently designated as protected do not qualify as such under international conventions because they in fact allow mining, logging or some other form of resource extraction. I remember the scene, when in the car back to Montreal, Riffon and I sat with a map of the province flapping between us in the back seat. Our fingers traced the contours of Quebec’s more famous wilderness areas as in our minds the symbolic green quickly faded into an industrial grey. Parc des Laurentides: out. Parc de la Vérendrye: not so parkish, really.

This year, the Charest government, eager to bolster its green credentials, committed to boosting the amount of genuine protected area to 8 per cent of the province’s area (from less than 4 per cent currently). With an eye to this, SOS Levasseur is preparing its biological report, compiled from three years of findings, to present to the government and the public this fall. After that, it’s wait-and-see.


On the map, if your finger follows the line that is the 51st parallel west from René-Levasseur Island, you will come to a community that is feeling the impact of a hydroelectric project in another way.

Waskaganish, population 2,000, is a Cree village located at the confluence of the kilometre-wide Rupert River into James Bay. Prized by canoers and trappers, the river has become the epicentre of a five-year construction project, begun this January, which will divert 71 per cent of its volume to feed power plants on the Eastmain and La Grande River systems further north.

On its website, Hydro-Québec praises the project, which it claims will promote energy efficiency by harnessing the existing power stations to full capacity. Environmentalists point to the cost of 346 square kilometres of flooded forests (by reservoirs, to hold the diverted water), plus a loss of livelihood for the Cree.

Nicolas Boisclair is a spokesperson for Révérence Rupert, a coalition of Cree and non-native activists who oppose the diversion. Boisclair is critical of the federal/provincial review process, mandated under the 1975 James Bay Agreement with the Cree Nation, which according to Boisclair is less stringent than the mechanism for environmental hearings that would occur under the BAPE. Boisclair recalls that during last year’s hearings the group was given a limited time frame and a $7,000 budget to analyze a 5,000-page document prepared by Hydro-Québec.

"The project was decided in advance," he summarizes. "They let the promoter [Hydro-Québec] do their own impact assessment, and the commissioners… didn’t finance any independent studies."

For environmentalists, consequences of the diversion will include the release of mercury into the water, and the emission of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) as submerged vegetation rots in the flooded areas.

In a Sept. 12 press release, Hydro-Québec stresses that residents of the nine Cree communities on James Bay approved the diversion when they voted to ratify the Paix des Braves, a comprehensive agreement with the Quebec government that includes a financial settlement, in 2002.

"The Paix des Braves was a good agreement," reacts Boisclair, "but it contained this rotten apple" (the diversion project). Boisclair and other opponents of the diversion argue that the treaty made the go-ahead for the diversion contingent on final approval.

In a separate referendum, held last year, the villages of Waskaganish, Chisasibi and Nemaska (downstream of the diversion) voted against the project by 81 per cent.

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