As we slowly turn down the heat in our homes after a glacial winter and get ready to blast the AC to combat the sweltering summer, it is important to remember that moderation is key. Of course, the electricity it takes to stay at a comfortable 21 degrees year-round is costly to whomever is paying the hydro bill, but it is also very taxing on the people and ecosystems of Quebec’s North where the energy is harnessed.
After visiting the community of Waskaganish in the James Bay a few years ago, I can’t help but to picture the near-dry rivers in the spring that reveal bare land which has been flooded throughout the winter. Between 1974-81 prime minister Robert Bourassa had the first hydroelectric dam built which would help the province’s economy and support “environmentally friendly” energy sources. The idea was not all bad, and thanks to negotiations with Inuit and Cree leaders, namely the late Billy Diamond, the James Bay and Northern Quebec agreement was signed in 1975, recognizing many constitutional rights of Native communities such as social and environmental protection. Nevertheless, the project has had many large-scale impacts on the land, changing ecosystems in ways that cannot be reversed.
Sequentially retaining and unleashing incredible amounts of water from reservoirs has caused flooding of forests, diversion of rivers, and even local extinction of fish species. “Never in my life have I seen the river in that state, not even during the height of the driest, hottest summers,” said Ian Diamond to The Nation newspaper in 2009 after the partial diversion of the Rupert River. In class I was told that hydroelectricity has the lowest energy ratio, which means that it requires very little energy to produce in comparison with how much is made available. It is also presented as an ideal renewable energy source because its market price can compete with fossil fuels, but obviously there is place for improvement.
In sum, it is important to remember that the side-effects of consumption aren’t always visible in our own back yard, but that they are still happening somewhere, sometimes closer than we think. Without contesting everything we are taught in class, we must also be critical of what we learn and be aware that we aren’t always getting the whole story.