Posted by: rosemary | October 17, 2009

A TALE OF TWO RIVERS (The Romaine and the Trois-Pistoles)

Runner and avid Alliance Romaine supporter Clementine enters Trois-Pistoles

Runner and avid Alliance Romaine supporter Clementine Sallée enters Trois-Pistoles

(Oct. 15th) One question that we marathoners regularly face- on the radio, in private conversations, and in town hall meetings- is “do you think you guys can win?”. “Granted,” they tell us, “that your arguments may be valid. The fact remains that the Romaine is an eight billion dollar project; preliminary work has started, supply contracts have been signed- do you really think that the provincial government and Hydro Quebec are going to just throw in the towel?” And whenever we attempt to answer this- legitimate- question, we invariably find ourselves bringing up the example of Trois-Pistoles.

Located on the south shore of the St. Lawrence between Rivière-du-Loup and Rimouski, Trois-Pistoles is well known to Quebecers as the site of Echofête, a yearly environmental rendez-vous and organic goods fair that is held in July. But what is less widely appreciated is that the Echofête was born out of the hard work of a group local activists who originally banded together to save the Trois-Pistoles River, on the outskirts of town.

In 2002, the PQ government was promoting a policy of micro-hydro. Private contractors were encouraged to build dams on small rivers and sell the energy to Hydro Quebec, as part of a foot-in-the-door strategy intended to lead to the gradual privatization of the state utility. A  Montreal-based entrepreneur by the name of Jean-Marc Carpentier had signed a contract to produce 3.5 megawatts of power on the Trois-Pistoles. In terms of generation capacity this was peanuts (compared with the 1550 MW that Hydro Quebec currently hopes to produce through four dams on the Romaine), but it would serve as an ideological precedent for the PQ, who, like the Liberals that have succeeded them, are hell-bent on reversing the progressive choice Quebecers made in the 1962 when they decided to nationalize the production and distribution of electricity.

But because Trois-Pistoles is a town rooted in its 300-year old history, and because locals remain attached to their river, with its spectacular falls, opposition to the dam project was strong. A coalition of artists and activists known as the “Amis de la Rivière” held protests, and uncovered compromising financial information related to the endeavour. In October 2002, Mikael Rioux, a tourism operator and local activist climbed into a tent platform suspended by a pulley system above the falls to block the bulldozers that were already clearing the construction site. For forty days Mikael stayed on the platform, enduring rain, sleet and snow, galvanizing public interest, and contributing to a wave of pressure that impelled the PQ government to declare a moratorium on private hydro.

So could the Trois-Pistoles model, with its recipe of local support, a successful media strategy, imaginative tactics, and even civil disobedience be applied to save North Shore Rivers such as the Magpie, the Little Mecatina, or the Romaine?

Last Sunday, we entered the town of Trois-Pistoles with high hopes, our message carried by Clémentine, an Alliance Romaine collaborator and activist lawyer who covered her half-marathon, 21-km distance in an impressive two hours three minutes. That afternoon, we held an animated exchange with a group of activists and interested citizens in Café Grains de Folie. It turns out that seven years on, while the Trois-Pistoles River remains undammed, it is under constant threat. Recently, the Liberal government of Jean Charest has adopted the dereglementation agenda of the PQ, encouraging not private developers but this time municipalities to invest in micro-hydro. This fall, the MRC (regional municipal council) to which Trois-Pistoles belongs is holding public hearings with a view to restarting the development project on the Trois-Pistoles River where Jean-Marc Carpentier abandoned it in 2002.

Several of the activists present spoke of the fatigue they feel having to oppose the same project, under different guises year after year, working all the time as volunteers whereas the municipal and private consultants have hefty public relations budgets to fall back on. They mentioned the stress of living in a divided community, with part of the population enthusiastically supporting the project as a form of economic salvation. Nevertheless, it was encouraging to sense the vibrancy, and notice the diverse make-up in terms of age, gender, and experience, of the crowd that was in attendance. In the words of Mikael Rioux, the idea behind the Echofête was to propose, not just refuse projects, and to show that there are viable options for promoting regional economic development other than damming rivers.

If the growth and popularity of the Echofête over the last seven years are any indication, these alternatives are guarantors of success. Échofête is a now a large-scale enterprise, generating direct revenue and attracting welcome tourist dollars to Trois-Pistoles.

Since 2002, Trois-Pistoles has earned itself a place on the map as a “green” community, and has inspired Quebecers through its example of successful citizen-based mobilization. But it seems that in the face of a hostile ideology in Quebec City, the protection of our rivers and wild spaces comes at the cost of constant vigilance.

This is a sobering, but at the same time a galvanizing message, that we will take with us as we venture further east.

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