With the drums and chants of “Makh Chi” (by Ulali) blasting on the car stereo, we descend into the Peace River Valley – we being Rita Wong and Valeen Jules with Poets for the Peace, and myself. The river glimmers in sinuous curves to our right, while to our left, signs high on the trees mark where both our path and the river’s could soon be drowned in the reservoir of the Site C dam. The groundwork for it is already being laid, yet here we are joining local Treaty 8 people and settler-farmers challenging the need for the multi-billion dollar project and the justice of obliterating so much living heritage.
Then we are on the water, somewhere between 500 and 600 people in close to 300 canoes, kayaks and inflatable dinghies. It is the 12th annual Paddle for the Peace, on a hot Saturday in July. Hosted by the West Moberly and Prophet River Treaty 8 First Nations plus the Peace Valley Environmental Association, representing a vast array of social and environmental justice NGOs or simply as citizens feeling called to bear witness, we paddle past beaver houses and vast alluvial mudflats. As we navigate the fast-flowing water, we get acquainted with this beautiful, powerful river that sustains rich farmland and traditional berry picking territory, while the rivers and creeks flowing into it are the lifeway-highways to the moose, elk, and deer that have roamed this valley since before recorded time.
This is a struggle between two realities: the local, lived one so rich in inter-dependencies and shared history, and the more remote, abstract one in corporate budgets and government policy positions.
I pause in my paddling to take in the sound of the water alive all around me, the chatter and bubble of it coursing through gravel and rocks at the rapids, the softer sibilance in the calmer stretches. I need to immerse myself in the river’s presence, to ground my perspective in its reality. Because in a way this is a struggle between two realities: the local, lived one so rich in inter-dependencies and shared history, and the more remote, abstract one in corporate budgets and government policy positions. One is small scale and slow, the other large and fast. The larger-scale one is centred in the powerful, populated south while the other is distributed in a host of small centres across the north, which has historically been treated as a colony, a handy resource hinterland for the south.
In the view from there, it has all been settled. Vast sums of money have already been spent on the $8.8 billion deal, the most expensive infrastructure project in BC’s history, with some arguing that it’s already “past the point of no return.” The “jobs, jobs, jobs” at stake make it a political football for the new NDP government in the province. And it’s been branded as “clean” energy, with the Prime Minister viewing it as “good for our emissions profile…” as reported in the Vancouver Sun last year.
It’s in the view from here that the contradictions and outright injustice of the thing become apparent.
The costs of the project seemingly do not include the millions that will have to be paid as compensation to the local Indigenous people if they sue for the loss of their traditional hunting grounds, nor the multiple millions in dam maintenance as, for instance, the silt and gravel from the valley build up against the dam.
As the wildfires in central BC reminded people when they cut the north off from the south, local food security in the north is an urgent priority, and this stretch of the Peace River Valley is a lynchpin.
The courts that have reviewed the claims of First Nations and local farmers challenging the project have largely focussed on technical matters, not the substantive legality or justice of the dam obliterating both a huge expanse of still-thriving Treaty 8 heritage (in local wildlife and habitat), plus fertile soil for farming and, more recently, vegetable growing on the deep alluvial soil in the valley floor. As the wildfires in central BC reminded people when they cut the north off from the south, local food security in the north is an urgent priority, and this stretch of the Peace River Valley is a lynchpin.
The next day, I spent time talking with local people and those who’d come from a range of civil-society organizations based in the south in order to participate in the paddle. It felt like the centre was no longer there but here, the energy of the river flowing between us. Suddenly, the way forward seemed simple and easy: once the BC Utilities Commission (BCUC) considers the true and total costs of Site C, including compensation to Indigenous groups, the project will surely be deemed economically non-viable. This will free up infrastructure spending for priorities in the NDP and Green platforms, and let the Indigenous and non-Indigenous people of the Peace move forward with their vision for the valley.
In the evening, I joined Saulteaux band member Yvonne Tupper in a drive through horse pasture to a spot above the valley overlooking the dam construction site. A security patrol boat zoomed by where the big earth movers were lumbering back and forth. An eagle flew overhead, while at my feet, growing tenaciously in the steep gully, ancient drought-resistant Prairie grasses blew in the breeze.
I stood there saying Miigwech* to the beauty of the day, and the beauty of this valley. And I came away feeling that I had begun to learn what it means to be a treaty person.
Heather Menzies is an award-winning Ottawa-based writer and scholar, and a long-time activist in the women’s movement, social justice and cultural politics. Her latest book is Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good
*Thank you in the Anishinaabe language spoken where I come from.