River of life

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I grew up living aside rivers, big and small. At the moment, I live a city block away from the St. Lawrence River, which less resembles the rivers I’ve known as it does an escape hatch for the continent that it drains.

I was born in a hospital on the banks of the Fraser River, not far from where it mixes with the salt water in the Georgia Strait between the British Columbia mainland and Vancouver Island. It may not be a river, per se, but the glacier-fed Portland Canal runs hundreds of kilometres from my earliest memories in the aptly named small town of Stewart, B.C., before it empties into the Pacific Ocean.

More years were passed near the North Saskatchewan River, not far from where it runs, fast and cold, from the Alberta side of the Rocky Mountains. My adolescence was spent criss-crossing and fishing B.C.’s powerful Skeena River, which conditioned me to respect the power of the earth’s veins as they channel its life to and from the ocean. Especially the monster salmon my Tsimshian friends would pull from the Skeena’s dark waters.

When I think about it, I’m pretty sure the situation is the same for most of humanity, except for the names.

When this edition of the Nation is published, I’ll be celebrating my birthday by canoeing down the Rupert River in Eeyou Istchee with some close friends and a few new ones – an adventure I’ve long dreamed of and have finally undertaken not least because I will almost certainly not get another chance.

By next summer, as most readers know, more than three-quarters of the Rupert’s flow will have been diverted to the Eastmain 1-A hydroelectric complex that includes a spillway on the Rupert River, a three-kilometre-long tunnel, two diversion bays, four dams and 74 dikes. It will flood an area of 640 square kilometres and help produce 893 megawatts of electricity destined to run the laptops and air conditioners of the U.S. Northeast.

The charging rapids will slow to a trickle. The abundant fish resources that thrive in the highly oxygenated water will dwindle away. The river as a transportation link will cease to exist.

For the Cree who have lived from the river and its bounty since before memory, this way of living will change, abruptly and brutally. Many believe, with good reason, that the decision to accept the project was made with limited information – especially on the environmental impacts. There is no doubt that the money waved in front of a people’s eyes as a form of inducement also involved a form of blackmail: accept this project or continue fighting the government to force it to honour the commitments made when the first one was built in the 1970s.

To be sure, there are real benefits to the so-called New Relationship Agreement (at least, when they aren’t being lost on ill-considered stock market investments). The revenues and self-government powers are important and substantial.

But those benefits should have accrued to the Cree as their inalienable right as a nation – not as a form of carrot and stick to accept the disfigurement of their land so that Americans can keep a constant 20-degree temperature in their homes in July and August. And it’s becoming clearer that these financial and political benefits will in no way replace the life that the Rupert provided for the Cree at the southern end of Eeyou Istchee.

Because, in a very real way, rivers are our life-blood. Turning their power into watts and dollars cannot replace their roles in our lives.

I shudder to think of the immense damage that a dam on one of my childhood rivers would bring. The Fraser? Skeena? North Saskatchewan? It’s unthinkable that any of these would be harnessed in the way that awaits the Rupert, which is equally majestic. But then, none of these other rivers serve an almost exclusively Native population.

These will be some of the thoughts I’ll be thinking as you read this. For the most part, however, I’ll be concentrating on not dumping the canoe while navigating the white water of the Rupert’s powerful currents. A bringer of life can take life just as easily for those who do not respect the power our rivers wield.

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