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New York officials tour Quebec Indigenous communities ahead of possible hydro deal

Democratic presidential candidate Bill de Blasio speaks during the Iowa Democratic Party's Hall of Fame Celebration, Sunday, June 9, 2019, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. .
Democratic presidential candidate Bill de Blasio speaks during the Iowa Democratic Party's Hall of Fame Celebration, Sunday, June 9, 2019, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. . Charlie Neibergall/AP

Officials from New York City have been visiting Quebec’s north to learn more about the impact a possible hydro power deal between the city and the provincial utility would have on Indigenous communities, a spokesman from the mayor’s office said Monday.

Mark Chambers, the director of the New York City mayor’s office of sustainability, said a three-member delegation recently visited Cree and Innu communities in the James Bay region and along the St. Lawrence River’s north shore.

He said the city wanted to consult with all the stakeholders before beginning formal negotiations that could see New York City increase its imports of Quebec hydroelectricity as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the city by 30 per cent by 2030.

READ MORE: CAQ government will table bill to make Hydro-Québec reimburse customers for overbilling

“We want to be sure we understand all the components that go into a deal and not just what we might hear from one party or another,” he said in a phone interview. “All of those go into the factors that help us decide if we go forward with a deal or not.”

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Bill Namagoose, the executive director of the Cree Nation Government, said he believes it’s the first time a major potential energy client has flown in to consult people in the area before making a purchase.

“It’s never been done where the end user is coming to the source of the electricity they want to buy, so we’re favourable to that position,” he said in a phone interview.

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He said the Cree communities had one main message for their American visitors: that any power exported to New York should come from existing energy surpluses and not lead to the construction of any new dams or stations.

“The Crees have said they don’t want any more Hydro projects on their territory, and that’s the message we gave to the guests from New York,” he said.

Hydro-Quebec has said it has the capacity to meet New York’s power needs without building new dams, but Namagoose said he remains worried that this policy could change in the future if the province sells all its surplus.

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Namagoose said the members of the New York delegation appear to have understood the Cree message.

“The message we got is that if the deal between New York City and Hydro-Quebec is to result in the construction of a new dam, they won’t sign,” he said. “They won’t purchase power.”

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While he did not explicitly confirm that New York would not sign a deal without such a promise, Chambers said the city is interested in purchasing “surplus supply” that already exists.

“We’re not interested in power that comes from the creation of any new dams,” he said.

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Namagoose said he has known de Blasio for decades and has reason to believes the mayor won’t sign a deal to purchase additional Quebec hydro power that doesn’t respect Cree rights.

The connection dates back to 1990, when a group of environmental and Indigenous activists travelled to New York City to highlight their opposition to a massive proposed hydroelectric project along the Great Whale River.

Their high-profile campaign helped convince then-governor Mario Cuomo to cancel a contract to purchase the electricity from the project, which was eventually scrapped altogether.

READ MORE: New York City pulls $5 billion out of oil, sues industry over climate change

Namagoose says de Blasio, then a political staffer, helped to arrange for the group to meet New York’s mayor and was sympathetic to their cause.

He said plans are also underway to have de Blasio meet the Cree grand chief. Chambers could not confirm the meeting but said it would be “in line with the value structure [de Blasio] puts forward.”

Hydro-Quebec spokeswoman Lynn St-Laurent confirmed the province has ample surplus power to meet New York’s needs without building additional stations. However a new transmission line to get the Quebec energy to the United States would be required.

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She said the utility, which currently provides five per cent of New York state’s total electricity, has built more than a dozen generating stations in the last 15 years, adding 5,000 megawatts of new capacity.

Another station, the 245-megawatt Romaine-4, is set to open in 2021.

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