New highways, railways, port inch closer to reality

·4 min read

At a recent Annual General Assembly in Mistissini, Grande Alliance proponents made several announcements regarding the massive infrastructure project.

The first phase of the 30-year proposed project would see a new railway corridor along the Billy Diamond Highway from Matagami to the Rupert River, as well as returning service to Grevet and Chapais. There would also be road paving and upgrades to reach communities along the Billy Diamond Highway, including to Waskaganish, Eastmain, Wemindji, and a second road access to Nemaska from Route-du-Nord.

Phases 2 and 3 envision the extension of the railway along the Billy Diamond Highway from km 257 to km 544, and eventually, all the way to Whapmagoostui. A new road from Chisasibi to Whapmagoostui would be built as well.

Highway 167 would be extended to the Trans-Taiga Highway, and the highway would be upgraded from Mistissini to near Lac Albanel. Lastly, a deep-sea port is planned for Whapmagoostui, allowing for larger barges to dock in the community.

Marc Beauregard, an economist with Vision Eeyou Istchee Systra, which is administering Phase I, said during the AGA that studies have been commissioned to complete planning for Phase I. These include a market survey, which will combine with Phases 2 and 3; a technical feasibility study; a socio-environmental feasibility study; contingency and mitigation planning; and a final draft of the design with cost evaluations.

Beauregard clarified the structure of La Grande Alliance’s governance, saying there are Community Information Officers (CIO) from every community, in addition to a project management team governed by the Cree Nation Government and their consulting firm, that works with Vision Eeyou Istchee and WSP.

Past and present dates for community information sessions about the Grande Alliance include August 16-18 for Whapmagoostui, August 22-24 for Wemindji, August 16-18 for Eastmain, September 20-22 for Waskaganish, and September 13-15 for Nemaska. No dates were yet confirmed for Chisasibi, Ouje-Bougoumou, Waswanipi and Washaw Sibi.

Beauregard said that the team works to engage community members by presenting at local AGAs, presenting at local councils when asked, engaging land users of impacted traplines, following up with land users, validation of information received, encouraging land users to participate in field work, workshops and focus groups interested parties, and engagement tools specific to each territory, e.g., radio.

Surveys conducted by La Grande Alliance show that about 16% of respondents were still unfamiliar with the project, while only 50% consider themselves well-informed or generally informed about it. As of January 2022, 86% said they hadn’t participated in any engagement process, though 54% said they were interested in participating in some form, and 26% were unsure.

Part of the work engaging with tallymen is to ask about activities happening on any given trapline that could be impacted.

WSP is a global professional services firm that will conduct pre-feasibility studies for Phases 2 and 3. Joany Desaulniers-Landry, Social Studies Advisor for WSP, said that for Phase 1, none of three trapline users were engaged in Wemindji, one of three in Eastmain, four of four in Waskaganish, six of six in Nemaska, 13 of 17 in Waswanipi, one of two in Ouje-Bougoumou, and zero out of four in Washaw Sibi.

She said those interviews helped to determine where roads could go to have the least impact on land users, as well as to identify sensitive areas and concerns about animals in the area.

A final report with the result of all of the studies conducted was to be available by December 15 of this year, according to Beauregard. However, before it could be released, the team had to finish Cree land use surveys, geotechnical surveys, archaeological surveys, water sampling, and integrating Cree cultural data into a design model and risk analysis model.

WSP Project Director Pierre Therrien said that Phase 1 involved some field work and desktop work. Therrien added that Cree land user surveys and community interviews need to be completed before studies for later phases can begin.

When it was first announced, around 900 people signed a petition started by Cree youth against the project, criticizing the lack of consultation between the Cree and Quebec.

Benjamin Powless, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation