L'odyssée électrique du Nouveau-
Brunswick

En faisant le survol d'une vie pleine d'interactions le long de la vallée de cette fameuse rivière, Mark Connell nous rappelle les jours d'antan avant que les barrages hydro-électriques ne viennent étouffer l'une des plus grandes artères de commerce et de survie du Nouveau-
Brunswick, la rivière St-Jean. En faisant la chronique de la "chute" graduelle de son état de grâce avec l'avènement des barrages de Tobique, de Beechwood et de Mactaquac, Mark met l'accent sur les stratégies de développement industriel qui mènent à la nécessité de ces barrages.

 

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New Brunswick's Electrical Odyssey

Mark Connell
April 1998

s a boy, I grew up in another New Brunswick, a New Brunswick with rivers that flowed freely supporting log drives and salmon fisheries. Small boats and canoes, in all manner of repair, were pulled up along the shores of rivers and creeks wherever villages, farms or towns were located. The roads rolled in concert with the countryside; dipping down to streams and rising up on hillsides. Railways connected the communities along the valleys, hauled the majority of the freight, the parcel express and the post. They ran efficient passenger services connecting people to any centre on the continent. New Brunswick had an economy that consumed low amounts of fossil fuels, an orientation that could have led to wiser economies where communities and nature could strike a balance.

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"The search for abundant, cheap electrical energy was a cornerstone and a driving force..."
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bechwood.jpg (15990 bytes)
Beechwood Hydro Electric Generating Station
(photo: Matt Jonah)

The Saint John River was a living current of life passing through a wilderness landscape partly occupied by farms, towns and villages. We swam in its waters, poled canoes, worked the farmlands on the intervals and the forests along the banks, picked fiddleheads in the spring, visited, skated and played hockey over its ice in the winter. People came in from the country on Saturday nights, shopped in the towns and met friends. They were connected to one another - by the river.

Looking back 50 years later, it has become clear that to dam the river with a series of hydroelectric dams was to kill it. The invasion of the dams both flattened the river and tore to ribbons the delicate tissue of our convivial folk culture. It turned that serpentine silver thread moving down our valley into a series of stagnant locks. That quiet but vibrant world will not reappear until time once again liberates it from the imposed industrial grip. The dams, however, did much more than destroy the river. The electrical energy was utilised to expand the paper mills that would in turn decimate the forests. At that time, the forests were only marginally affected by logging and forests still covered most of the province, without clearcuts. The search for abundant, cheap electrical energy was a cornerstone and a driving force behind a cultural shift toward large scale industry. Prior to the 1950's the New Brunswick Electrical Power Commission (NBEPC) maintained a modest electrical energy policy with little export.

Beginning in the 1950's all of this changed. New Brunswick's formal economy was in rough shape and Premier Hugh John Flemming focused on resource extraction. In 1953 Brunswick Mines discovered the largest lead zinc ore deposit in the world near Bathurst, N.B.. This and, incredibly, a manganese ore body outside Woodstock, N.B., if developed, would need large amounts of electricity. These factors, along with rural electrification and an enlarging pulp and paper sector which already consumed 35% of the province's electrical output, led to the series of hydroelectric dams along the Saint John River.

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"The first step in the systematic disruption and sabotaging of the Saint John River system was a proposal to construct the Tobique Hydroelectric Dam..."
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This forced industrial development produced popular and political benefits for Premiers Flemming, Robichaud and later Hatfield. Their strategies were complementary and integral to the long-term unsustainable industrial strategies being created across Canada and the U.S.. These strategies developed behind closed doors and were never opened to public debate.

It was difficult to mount opposition to projects that were often announced well on their way to completion of preliminary studies. In those days, to oppose the construction of the dams was social heresy and at first, the NBEPC had clear sailing with little effective opposition.

The first step in the systematic disruption and sabotaging of the Saint John River system was a proposal to construct the Tobique Hydroelectric Dam in the early 1950's. It was sited on the Tobique Maliseet Nation Reserve at the Tobique Narrows; a sacred place, a place of grandeur and power. Young men in canoes ran the wild rapids at the Narrows since time began. Maliseets, powerless and embittered by 400 years of colonialism, genocide and racism, watched as their river was barricaded, flooded and stolen from them.

The NBEPC, feeling only a sullen and silent resistance at Tobique narrows, was emboldened with this coup and with renewed confidence planned their next project: Beechwood, a few miles south of Perth Andover. By this time, it was the mid '50's. There they obstructed the entire Saint John River over the complaints of a few vocal residents and with no publicly-driven approval process. Beechwood's hydroelectric facility thus became the second cultural and environmental atrocity perpetrated by the NBEPC and the provincial government against its own people along the river. The Salmon run was seriously affected and log drives became a thing of the past. The benefit of a healthy salmon fishery, over hundreds of years, against the 75 year life span of the dam was never calculated. It was so stupefying that residents did not know how to react. The electrical output of the dam was approximately double that of the Tobique dam at ~150 MW. There the NBEPC industrial heel stamped deeply into the Saint John River's bed.

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"The Mactaquac Dam was the final crushing insult to the inhabitants of the upper river valley."
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The NBEPC then made a surprise move. They bought the Grand Falls generating station from International Paper. The acquisition gave them, with the exception of the Tinker Dam on the Aroostook River, hegemony over the upper river. This control extended 200 kilometers to the Maine border at the extreme west end of New Brunswick's panhandle.

The Commission could now look downriver and make its plans with confidence. Early in the 1960's it came; a plan to construct a 300 MW dam at Mactaquac. This capacity would be later increased to 600 MW's. Although the site was flawed for geological and technical reasons, it was thrust into place as the last major piece in the NBEPC's series of dams planned for the river.

The Mactaquac Dam was the final crushing insult to the inhabitants of the upper river valley. The Power Commission's bullish tactics used previously at Tobique and Beechwood sharpened public criticism of the project. The potential loss of farmlands, the disappearing salmon, and the impending loss of their beloved silver, steely-grey river finally mobilized the affected public.

A committee was organized to oppose the construction of the Mactaquac dam. This group, out of their passion for the river, made history when they formed the first group in the province to defend the earth against the modern industrial juggernaut. These and other people had opposed the DDT spray program since 1954 and had already acquired skills needed to deal with the increasingly opaque and immovable government and its industrial agenda.

The group was composed of very able people that included: Dr. George Frederick Clarke (author of many books featuring New Brunswick rivers), Deese and Ken Homer, Kathryn Connell, Dr. Ernie Hale of the UNB Geology Department, Murray Hubbard and farmers from Bear Island along the 60 mile zone designated for the headpond. They rose up in anger, armed with an indisputable intelligence, but were rebuffed by the bureaucrats from NBEPC's headquarters in Fredericton. Their own political parties turned a blind eye. These concerned citizens garnered little support from other quarters of the province, especially downriver in Fredericton, where people believed that the sacrifice was necessary. Those who vocally objected were treated as pariahs or social traitors. Lingering McCarthyism and fear of witch hunts were a component of the psychological brew. The fledgling protest movement, although capable, was not successful in stopping the overwhelming forces proposing the construction of the dam at Mactaquac.

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"The NBEPC had laid claim to and stolen an entire river by 1968. They transformed it into an integrated industrial resource."
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Only a few had an inkling that this promised industrial program would create an economy which would lead to resource depletion - not just for the St. John River Valley, but for the entire province. The NBEPC had laid claim to and stolen an entire river by 1968. They transformed it into an integrated industrial resource. The progressively developed hydroelectric dams allowed the system as a whole to become increasingly valuable as a resource, for them to manipulate the water's flow to their own electrical ends. The river, thus raped, stolen from the very earth and its inhabitants, co-opted for the purposes of industry, was utilised for the destruction of our forests, the rapid depletion of our minerals and for electrical export to the industrial economy of the U.S..

Three decades after the emplacement of the dam, the negative ramifications of urban industrial policies set at that time are pristinely clear. No more glaring evidence is needed for the failure
of these policies than: the 40% of our province that is now unwaged and the lead zinc mines in Bathurst that are nearing depletion and were never utilised for value- added manufacturing within our province. The forests, for which the electric generating capacity was partially developed, lie in waste and soon will no longer support the pulp mills; let alone the diverse ecosystems that once existed here

The intermeshed folk culture that existed in New Brunswick, a key component in building decentralized economies in ecosystem-based landscapes, was shattered and is all but gone. For this we can thank the Power commission and the governments of the day. The NBEPC's
industrial, embarked upon along the Saint John River, later led elsewhere to Coleson Cove, Belledune and the bizarre industrial adventurism of nuclear power developed at Point Lepreau.

If we are to build graceful economies in relationship to the land, as if we inhabit it rather than plunder it, we must think creatively and learn to act within our limits. Limits to population, limits to technology and limits to appetite and greed. Underlying this thought is the growing truth and awareness that the progressive, secular, materialist philosophy in which modern life rests is deeply flawed and ultimately destructive to the whole fabric of life, both in New Brunswick and around the planet.


Namasté

As a post script, the final piece in the destruction of the upper river was the American component, the proposed Dickie Dam in Maine. This scheme was thwarted, ironically, by a U.S. energy policy shift from public to private power utilities and the development of nuclear
power. A few hundred kilometers of the upper Saint John River, although flowing through the carnage of clearcuts in northern Maine, still runs free!