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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Power from the north : the poetics and politics of energy in Québec Desbiens, Caroline


In 1971, Robert Bourassa, then Premier of Quebec, launched a major hydroelectric scheme to be built 1400 km North of Montreal. Known as the "James Bay" project, the first phase included the creation of eight powerhouses, six reservoirs and the diversion of two rivers. These transformations necessarily impacted the local Cree people; a territorial agreement partly compensated them but remains controversial to this day. While northern communities overwhelmingly bear the ecological cost of the project, the bulk of James Bay energy flows south to the industrial centers of Quebec, Ontario and the U.S. The assertion then that "James Bay belongs to all the Quebecois" which was meant to ease political tensions about the project begs the question, "Who are the Quebecois" and how do the Crees fit within such a community? This thesis explore that question by looking at the Quebecois cultural production of territory and its resources in the north. If James Bay was out of reach, it was never out of view. Media and political discourses reiterated key elements of a Quebecois cultural relationship to place, some of which are contained in the rural literature known as the roman de la terre. Several elements of this literature and its broader context were recontextualized in James Bay, particularly as they pertained to the will to occupy the land and develop natural resources. This was an important aspect of making James Bay - a land historically inhabited by the Crees - into a "Quebecois" national landscape. I suggest that this process was largely rooted in representations of nature that sought to bind it with nation and national identity. Thus James Bay demonstrates the close connection between identity and environmental struggles. For the Quebecois, the access to James Bay was supported by a territorial discourse that performed their own cultural past. This provoked an organized resistance from the Crees which constituted them as a modern political unit. A look at the cultural geography of the region highlights the political scales created in the accessing of resources that render their equitable and sustainable use more difficult to achieve.

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