Investigative playwriting shines light on myths and realities of Hydro-Québec
Bare-bones play poses uncomfortable questions on utility's purpose and policies.
My electricity bill from Hydro-Québec arrived this week. Nothing on its pages hinted that someone could write a hit play about Quebec's relationship with its power monopoly, but Montreal actress Christine Beaulieu did just that.
Ms. Beaulieu's J'aime Hydro is a documentary theatre piece that explores the power company's origins and practices, and its position in Quebec's collective mythology. Ms. Beaulieu, performing as herself, includes the backstory of the play, recounting all her self-doubts in the face of a complex topic, as well as her tutelage by Annabel Soutar, a forceful playwright and director whose Montreal company Porte Parole commissioned the piece.
The 3.5-hour play has won nothing but praise since Ms. Beaulieu began performing excerpts in 2015, and its success has spread far beyond the Montreal theatre scene. She is now in the last leg of a mostly sold-out tour of Quebec, with another tour expected in the spring. A published version of the play is on prominent display in my local francophone bookshop.
The roots of the provincial utility go back to the 1940s, but it was during the Quiet Revolution that Hydro-Québec emerged as a pillar of the nationalist plan for the province. In one of Ms. Beaulieu's key video clips, from the early 1960s, then minister of natural resources René Lévesque makes an impassioned statement in favour of an expanded public utility that would make all Quebeckers "truly maîtres chez nous in all the regions of Quebec."
Ms. Beaulieu grew up in a sovereigntist household, and accepted Hydro-Québec as a force for public good. Her doubts begin when she sees Chercher le courant (Follow the Current), a 2010 documentary film in which fellow-actor Roy Dupuis criticizes the utility's plan to build four dams on the Romaine River as an ecological disaster and financial absurdity. The $6.5-billion project only increases surplus capacity, the film says, and its power costs more to produce than the price it could fetch in the United States. Ms. Beaulieu discovers a 2014 government report that concludes that adding such megaprojects to the electrical grid "is ruinous for Quebec."
So why do it? As Ms. Beaulieu interviews experts, politicians, small-town mayors and Indigenous people living on Quebec's Côte-Nord, she uncovers a mixture of institutional inertia – pilloried by one witness as the "beaver complex" – private greed and community-level desire for the jobs and infrastructure big hydroelectric projects bring. Hydro-Québec is also expected to deliver annual dividends to the province, even when prices fall.
All these factors feed an institutional mentality geared toward getting bigger, selling more and chasing higher profits. Hydro's current goal is to double profit by 2030. Encouraging customers to put less pressure on the environment by trimming consumption or going solar is not part of the plan.
Ms. Beaulieu's big question is whether Mr. Lévesque's servant of the people's sovereignty has become too much its own master, as well as too big a screen for private power companies that profit in its shadow. As her investigation continues and her doubts increase, Hydro-Québec takes notice, and begins to court her. They offer her interviews with high-level executives, and fly her to the Romaine site on the Côte-Nord for a private tour by the project manager. In one of the play's final scenes, she has dinner in an Italian restaurant with company CEO Éric Martel.
By this point, the fearful, out-of-her-depth citizen investigator we met at the beginning of the play has become a well-briefed Superwoman, armed with questions that Mr. Martel doesn't always field well. Asked why his company is making dams that don't pay, he says his planning horizon is 100 years, a remark that any economist would shoot down in a second. He notes that the long-term past trend for energy prices has been upward, and speculates that by 2025, the market price could be about five times what it is now. With solar panels becoming ever cheaper, that's an incredible suggestion.
Flash-forward to this week, when Mr. Martel revealed that his new strategy includes selling more aggressively to the United States and shopping hard for projects abroad, which would include – in The Globe and Mail's words – "buying a problematic hydro plant that no one will touch." That's a long step beyond maîtres chez nous, and could saddle the company with environmental harms much greater than some allege to be occurring at the Romaine River dams.
J'aime Hydro is bare-bones theatre. Most of its brief scenes are stand-up recitations by Ms. Beaulieu, with occasional dialogues acted out with one other performer, as well as a few film and audio clips and simple projections. It's really a staged podcast series, and indeed the piece is being recorded for release in that format next fall. By then, Ms. Beaulieu may want to think about an update.