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  • Writer's pictureZoe Zakrzewska

Intersectional Sustainability: Socially, Culturally, and Environmentally Responsible Energy

Written By: Zoe Zakrzewska

Edited By: Justin Weir

The global effort to combat emissions has begun to shift the energy sector away from oil and gas, towards renewable energy. As a climate-responsible solution, renewable sources of energy appear to be universally good. However, even green sources of energy can create undesirable effects. For this reason, the energy transition must be intersectional: environmental, social, and cultural dimensions must be considered for green projects to be truly sustainable.

In Canada, more than 60 percent of electricity is sourced from hydroelectric plants, making it the fourth-largest hydroelectricity generator in the world.[1] British Columbia, Quebec, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Yukon all obtain 90% or more of their energy supply from hydroelectricity. In fact, Canada’s more than 500 hydropower facilities generate so much energy that significant portions of it are sold and transported to the United States.[2]

Despite their potential to propel Canada’s decarbonization project, some hydropower projects have received significant backlash. Specifically, projects have been criticized for being implemented with a disregard to Indigenous communities, and for creating environmental risks and damages.

The James Bay Project was one of the first Canadian hydropower projects to generate controversy and discussion of the social and environmental impacts of hydroelectricity. The Quebec government announced the “project of the century” in 1971, without the approval of Indigenous people living in the area.[3] The construction of the proposed hydroelectric dams would flood vast regions of Cree and Inuit territory, posing a significant threat to these communities and ignoring their right to self-governance. As the project gained coverage, environmentalists joined the opposition, alleging that the project was a violation of Indigenous rights, and that the lack of attention toward the ecological and environmental impacts of the project was extremely concerning.[4] The Cree and Inuit took the situation to court, but were unsuccessful at stopping the project. With construction on the facilities already beginning, Indigenous groups were forced to negotiate, which resulted in the creation of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, signed in 1975. Although the agreement allowed Quebec to construct the James Bay project on Indigenous land, the Cree and Inuit were financially compensated in exchange.[4],[5] The agreement also established an important precedent: analysis of environmental and social impacts of future projects on Indigenous lands must be conducted.[6]

Guidelines and rules, while certainly a step forward, have not been enough to ensure that hydroelectric projects are completed ethically. Recent controversies involving hydropower projects highlight the prioritization of profits, political agendas and economic growth over environmental conservation and the welfare of local people.

The Muskrat Falls project between Nalcor Energy and the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, for instance, has faced criticism for its health risks. The creation of the dam would release elevated amounts of a neurotoxin — methylmercury — into rivers and lakes in an area with a large Indigenous population. Methylmercury is a compound that enters and accumulates in the food web of aquatic systems, and if levels are high enough, consumption of animals like fish and seal can be toxic to humans.[7] A risk assessment of the project recommended a full vegetation clearing of the area, but the provincial government and Nalcor Energy failed to follow it. In addition, Nalcor and the provincial government continuously denied claims that the dams would have negative impacts on human health.[8] Nearby Indigenous communities, which consume high amounts of locally caught fish and marine mammals, contacted Harvard University for further research on the subject.[9] The study found that Nalcor had underestimated the degree of methylmercury release in their assessments, and that average Inuit exposure to the neurotoxin was expected to double after dam creation.[8] Despite public upset and the recommendation of further mitigation measures by an independent advisory committee, Nalcor proceeded to flood the dam reservoir in 2019 without clearing any soil or vegetation.[8]

Similarly, the Site C dam proposed by British Columbia Hydro has become a subject of debate due to its social and environmental impacts. Indigenous communities’ land use practices will be disrupted, and thousands of acres of productive agricultural lands will be flooded. This will displace farmers, while several historical and archeological sites would be lost.[10] The project will also result in significant damage to sensitive ecosystems. Two Indigenous groups unsuccessfully sued BC Hydro, forcing the groups to arrange settlements instead.[13] Meanwhile, a group of over 250 scientists and legal scholars released a statement of concern over the project’s regulatory review, questioning the construction of Site C, and arguing that less costly and environmentally damaging alternatives exist for British Columbia.[14] Despite these issues, the BC government decided to continue with the project’s development.

Hydropower is an energy source that will always result in some sort of environmental change, which in turn affects the surroundings and activities of local people. Therefore, there are few renewable energy projects that do not require some degree of compromise and sacrifice. However, when companies and governments fail to make proper efforts to address these possible impacts — often due to a pursuit of profits, cost reduction, or in order to further political agendas — the ethicality of such hydropower projects comes into question. Hydroelectricity in Canada needs to be done the right way: by creating thorough and complete environmental impact assessments, by considering impacts on local people and Indigenous groups, by clearly communicating all aspects plans to the public, and by accepting additional costs in order to mitigate significant risks and negative impacts.


Works Cited:

1: Waterpower Canada. (n.d.). Learn: Discover all about waterpower and the role it plays in Canada.

2: Canadian Geographic Education. (n.d). Hydroelectricity.

3: Gupta, A. (1992). Canadian Hydro-Electric Project - James Bay: An Explosive Agenda of Politics, Money, and the Environment. World Affairs: The Journal of International Issues, 1(1), 40–45.

4: Hornig, J. F. (Ed.). (1999). Social and Environmental Impacts of the James Bay Hydroelectric Project. McGill-Queen’s University Press.

5: Hurley, J & O’Reilly, A. (2021, June 16). Revisiting the Historic Kanatewat Decision. Gowling WLG.

6: Government of Canada. (2014). The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement and the Northeastern Quebec Agreement - Annual Reports 2008-2009 / 2009-2010.

7. Calder, R. S., Schartup, A. T., Li, M., Valberg, A. P., Balcom, P. H., & Sunderland, E. M. (2016). Future impacts of hydroelectric power development on methylmercury exposures of Canadian Indigenous communities. Environmental Science & Technology, 50(23), 13115–13122.

8: Calder, R.S., Schartup, A. T., Bell, T., & Sunderland, E.M. (2021). "Muskrat Falls, methylmercury, food security, and Canadian hydroelectric development" in S Crocker and L Moore (Eds). Muskrat Falls: How a Mega Dam Became A Predatory Formation (pp.81-109). Memorial University Press.

9: CBC News. (2016, October 27). Battle over Muskrat Falls: What you need to know.

10: Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. (2014, May 1). Report of the Joint Review Panel - Site C Clean Energy Project, BC Hydro and Power Authority, British Columbia.

11: Bennett, N. (2022, January 17). Site C Dam to Require 8.7% Rate Hike over 2 Years: Analyst. Business In Vancouver.

12: Lee, M. (2017, August 30). Revisiting the Economic Case for Site C. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, BC Office.

13: Grant, J. (2022, June 27). West Moberly First Nations reach partial settlement over Site C Dam. CBC News.

14: Smith, C. (2016, May 24). More than 250 Canadian scientists and professors sign letter objecting to Site C dam approval. The Georgia Straight.

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