Site C: Dammed If We Do

West Moberly First Nations' historic treaty challenge is the "last, best chance" to stop Site C and preserve the Peace River valley

by Ana Simeon

West Moberly First Nations | Photo: ©Garth Lenz

There were warning signs aplenty. Back in 1973, before Site C was even on the table, a major landslide at Attachie, roughly half way between Hudson’s Hope and Fort St John, blocked off the whole Peace River for two days. In 2018, a fracking-induced tremor stopped work at Site C while workers were evacuated. A year later, another landslide hit Old Fort, just one kilometre downstream from Site C, prompting the evacuation of its residents. Each and every time, the BC government responded with an infusion of cash and a renewed determination to forge ahead, costs be damned.

After BC Hydro revealed serious geotechnical issues at the dam site in July 2020, many of us had hoped that hard geological reality would get through to the Horgan government, even though arguments about treaty rights, food security, or even basic principles of fiscal prudence had fallen on deaf ears. After all, even the criminally insane have lucid intervals. Others, of a more cynical bent, predicted that Horgan would decide to go ahead with river diversion while waiting for further geotechnical reports. It would be business as usual.

Depressingly, the cynics were right: on February 26, the Premier announced that BC is moving ahead with a new dam design, complete with a new price tag of $16 billion. This is entirely in keeping with successive BC governments’ record of secrecy when it comes to BC Hydro and all its works: for decades, regulatory oversight was sidelined and BC Hydro’s deferral accounts used to hide a multitude of sins. In the Peace region in particular, the consequence has been unprecedented environmental destruction, enabled by a deep-seated colonial disdain for the treaty relationship. At the end of the day, the tragic reality is that our democratic checks and balances have failed.

Peace River Valley

Halfway River, Peace River Valley | Photo: ©Hoffmann

A stubborn love

Fortunately, there is much more to the story of the Peace than colonial bullying and dysfunction. People with deep roots in this land don’t give up easily. Their stubborn love of place spans generations, outlasting mere governments.

The Dunne-za people of West Moberly First Nations carry the knowledge and wisdom of innumerable generations of ancestors who fished, hunted, and travelled the Peace on their seasonal round. Their relationship to Wochii – Our Big River – (the name for the Peace in Dunne-za language) is foundational to their culture and their way of life.

West Moberly’s settler neighbours have their own roots in the fertile benchlands of the Peace, on family farms worked by their grandparents and great-grandparents before them. Over the past ten years, the two groups have forged a strong alliance that has drawn support and inspired passionate activism across BC, Canada, and even internationally.

This support has grown to become a political force in its own right, with the potential to transform the colonial dynamic in Treaty 8 territory.

A game-changing legal challenge

Barely minutes after the Premier’s press conference on February 26, West Moberly First Nations came out with their own announcement that they’re pressing on with a comprehensive treaty challenge over Site C. Their previous legal efforts had secured a judicial decision that the full case against Site C must be heard in March 2022, well before any steps are taken to flood the valley. This historic 120-day trial is our last, best chance to stop Site C and restore the Peace River valley to its natural state.

West Moberly’s civil claim alleges that Site C and the two previous dams on the Peace River infringe their rights under Treaty No. 8 to hunt, fish, trap, and carry out their traditional lifestyle free from “forced interference.” Because of the enormous amount of land already taken up by the reservoirs of the two previous dams on the Peace River, the section of the Peace valley between Hudson’s Hope and Fort St. John, which would be flooded by Site C, is the last patch of terrain where West Moberly members are able to exercise their treaty rights.

“The court has promised us a judgement before any flooding of the Site C reservoir can begin. The trial preparation is intense and costly. It’s the last place we want to be, but we’ve never been more sure that Site C is a violation of our Treaty rights. If the Premier hasn’t been forced to cancel the project by the time our case is decided, the court will have the opportunity to do that for him.”

—Chief Roland Willson, West Moberly First Nations

Large-scale hydro: a study in environmental racism

Few British Columbians know that every third kilowatt they consume comes from Indigenous territories that were flooded with no consultation and scarcely any notice. The W.A.C. Bennett and Peace Canyon dams created large reservoirs (the Williston reservoir alone sprawls over almost 1,800 km²) that flooded hunting grounds and obliterated burial sites, ancient gathering places, and other spiritually important areas.

Deer | Photo: ©Hoffmann

West Moberly elders recall witnessing a sea of caribou, “like bugs on the landscape.” With their migration routes submerged under the Williston and Dinosaur reservoirs, the caribou dwindled to a handful of tiny herds, one of which (the Burnt Pine herd) has since been extirpated. Grizzly bears, buffalo, mountain goat, mountain sheep, and moose were all impacted by flooding from the dams.

Then there’s the fish. Methylmercury (from the decaying vegetation submerged by the dam) has now been accumulating in fish within the reservoirs and surrounding watershed for over 50 years. The BC government admits that lake trout, bull trout, and dolly varden from the Williston reservoir may be unsafe to eat and has posted warnings to that effect.

But what about the rest of the watershed, fed by the Peace, Crooked, and Parsnip rivers, which flow out of the reservoir? What about the health of West Moberly and other Indigenous populations whose traditional diets rely so much on fish? Studies on the Crooked River conducted by West Moberly show that methylmercury contamination extends well beyond the reservoir into the watershed generally, making the fish unsafe or less safe to eat.

“Having biomass in the water does not constitute a meaningful right to fish. The fish have to be healthy enough to eat. My understanding of treaty rights is that they don’t just guarantee fish ‘protein’ or ‘biomass,’ but a meaningful right to fish. That means protection for the species we prefer and the habitat they require.”

—Chief Roland Willson

Your stake in the Peace

With a solid majority in the Legislature, and a high popularity rating based on his government’s handling of the pandemic, Premier Horgan had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to set British Columbia on a path to true reconciliation. He has chosen to squander it. And let’s face it: even if the government had issued a last-minute stay of execution for the Peace, the deeply rooted colonial disrespect for treaty rights within the corridors of power, and the lack of understanding of the vital ecological role of living rivers, would not have changed just because this particular dam happens to be built on unstable shales. The same thing could still happen tomorrow to the next river that BC Hydro sets its sights on.

On the other hand, a deep reckoning with the colonial past and present is precisely what West Moberly’s historic case is about. Their legal challenge goes right to the heart of the constitutionally-protected treaty relationship, and the government’s fiduciary obligation for “loyalty and care” toward treaty partners when authorizing industrial development on treaty territory.

What happens to the Peace valley affects us all – whether through the environmental and climate impacts, the lack of food security, or the enormous bill that will fall on taxpayers and ratepayers, even those who haven’t been born yet

If you don’t want to see the Peace River turned into a series of reservoirs, join a groundswell of support for West Moberly First Nations’ legal challenge at and get your own literal “stake in the Peace.” For all donations above $100, Peace Valley farmers Ken and Arlene Boon will plant a yellow stake in the hillside above Bear Flats, a bend in the Peace with a handy sandbar which bears, moose, and other wildlife use to cross the river, and which would be flooded by the Site C reservoir.

Your stake will be joining 1,300+ others surrounding the Boons’ house and standing on guard for treaty territory in a palpable show of support and solidarity.

Ana Simeon is Fundraising Campaigns Director at RAVEN, Canada’s only Indigenous legal defence charity. Before joining RAVEN, Ana was Peace Valley campaigner with Sierra Club BC.

Watershed Sentinel Cover April/May, 2021

This article appears in our April | May 2021 issue.

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