From atop a ridge overlooking the Peace River Valley, rolling hills speckled with swaths of prairie lands cover the horizon far into the distance. It’s an area known for its rich soils and flowing grasses, prime agricultural lands that are quickly disappearing.
For the past few months this bountiful range has undergone a transformation that will see it changed forever. This is the location of the British Columbian government’s cherished Site C dam, a massive hydroelectric project in the midst of preparatory construction in the heart of the Peace River Valley.
It’s also Treaty 8 territory, comprised of several First Nations who call this place home, including West Moberly First Nation, which has raised some of the most intense opposition to the project since its approval in 2014. Most recently, British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Bruce Butler granted B.C. Hydro an injunction to remove a group of protesters who have been occupying a spot near the construction site for months. The court granted permission to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to remove the group from what is known as the Rocky Mountain Fort Camp. Dam opposition has united landowners, Indigenous Peoples and environmentalists.
“Site C is just a train wreck when it comes to trying to improve relationships with First Nations to accommodate treaty rights,” local landowner Ken Boon, who was staked out at the camp for two months, told Indian Country Today Media Network.
“But there’s still hope on different fronts,” continued Boon, whose farm will be completely flooded if the dam is completed. “The auditor general is reviewing the government’s investment decision on the project, and there are currently four legal challenges. I don’t know what’s going to kill Site C, but we definitely haven’t given up yet. It’s not a done deal!”
Boon was disappointed with the ruling, but dismantled the camp peacefully and vowed to keep fighting the project. He is also president of the Peace Valley Land Owners Association, which has already launched two judicial reviews of the project to no avail—which Boon said has once again called into question the integrity of Canada’s environmental review process.
“Any forum to really have a legitimate debate and discussion about this project has been taken away,” Boon said. “The B.C. government has facilitated, in every way it can, to ram this project through. There is a real lack of due process on Site C.”
The camp was situated at a spot earmarked for the dumping of waste rock, which Justice Butler ruled was costing B.C. Hydro millions of dollars in delays during the 62 days the camp was active. B.C. Hydro CEO Jessica McDonald said after the ruling came down that the company was pleased with Justice Butler’s decision and that safety for construction crews and keeping the project on schedule was the company’s top priority.
Site C is the third dam to be built along the Peace River over the past 30 years and was originally proposed in 1982. However, in 1983 the BC Utilities Commission rejected the project. The dam site is just 52 miles downstream from the existing W.A.C. Bennett and Peace Canyon dams constructed in 1967 and 1980, respectively. Once completed, Site C will have an annual electrical output of about 5,100 gigawatt hours, enough energy to power 450,000 homes.
Though the project has received significant support from the provincial government, there are many who have argued that British Columbia doesn’t currently require that much electricity capacity and that the dam’s floods will destroy swaths of agricultural land with an estimated value of over a billion dollars if cultivated.
Premier Christy Clark, however, has pledged to push the project “to the point of no return” before the next provincial election in 2017. Clark is hoping to sell the electricity to Alberta to wean that province off its dependency on coal-powered electricity, which accounts for nearly 47 percent of nationwide consumption.
Although opponents of Site C were hopeful after an environmental assessment outlined a number of recommendations to mitigate the impacts to agricultural land, the project has become a flagship project for the Clark administration and continues to forge ahead, despite facing four pending legal challenges by both First Nations and non-First Nations. The $8.8 billion project has already begun preparatory construction, which Chief Roland Willson of West Moberly First Nation says will have a significant impact on his peoples’ land and culture—people who have called the Peace Valley home for thousands of years.
“The Peace Valley is the main artery connecting northeastern B.C. to southern B.C.,” Willson said. “There is no other valley like it. It’s irreplaceable. It’s our culture, it’s our lineage, it’s our history.”
Some of the evidence for that has been unearthed by B.C. Hydro itself, he said.
“They found a Clovis point dated to over 13,000 years old, one of the oldest found sites in northeastern B.C., and everyone’s excited about it,” Willson said. “It belongs to the Dunne-ze people—it’s ours. You don’t need to dig it up to see who we are. We’re right here.”
Although Willson said this archeological find reaffirms his nation’s direct heritage to the land, it means very little to a pro-industry government.
“What’s important to the [B.C. Government] is that they’ve made promises they can’t keep,” he said. “Their LNG dreams have fallen apart. Site C is the only thing they have to hang onto right now, and it was a bad idea to begin with. They’ve pushed us aside, saying we’re not important. What other choice do we have? We have to stand up and say we matter.”
Just before the Rocky Mountain Fort Camp was removed it got a visit from some strong advocates to the cause. Renowned environmentalist David Suzuki and Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) Grand Chief Stewart Phillip made an appearance to show their support.
West Moberly and other Treaty 8 First Nations have initiated legal challenges of the Site C project on the grounds that it will irreversibly affect their traditional territories and violates their treaty rights. They expect a ruling in both federal and provincial court by the end of April.
“UBCIC continues to insist the B.C. and Canadian governments respect Treaty 8’s current court proceedings by immediately ceasing the preparatory work of the proposed Site C dam site until Treaty 8’s court proceedings are decided upon and the Site C dam proposal is properly vetted and reviewed by the B.C. Utilities Commission,” Phillip said in a statement.