Disturbing the Peace

By Briony Penn, July 2010

Caribou and conservation need to be part of the conversation around the Site C dam.

It’s 2005. Award-winning aboriginal musician/TV host and researcher Art Napoleon is standing on top of the WAC Bennett dam. I’ve joined him in Peace country to work on a documentary film proposal. Called Disturbing the Peace, it will raise awareness about the potential impacts of the proposed Site C dam on the Peace and the other energy projects that riddle the northeast corner of BC. 

Art is pointing out over a stretch of water that goes as far as the eye can see, where the Finlay River used to flow into the Peace through his people’s territory—the Dunne-Za (historically called the Beaver)—and is now drowned under the Williston reservoir. 

We are leaning on a weathered interpretive sign at the viewpoint—put up at the height of the Bennett boosterism era of the 60s when the dam was built. Most of the sign consists of a list of superlatives and numbers about the features of the project. Once the largest man-made lake in the world, the dam is over 7000 feet long and 600 feet high; the turbines can create 2,730 megawatts and supply all the electricity needs of Vancouver and Victoria; and the reservoir holds 260,000,000,000 cubic feet of water. Below the numbers are a few photographs and captions identifying the native people and wildlife of the Peace River. Art points to a faded sepia toned picture that is captioned “Beaver Indian and his wife” and remarks with a laugh, “That’s my grandfather and his first wife. At least they didn’t say his squaw.”

BC Hydro has removed that sign now, perhaps coincidentally with acknowledging some of the injuries to the two former villages on the banks of the Finlay and the Peace. The surviving members of Fort Ware and Ingenika Point, now called the Tsay Keh Dene people of the Kwadacha First Nation, received $15 million in 2008. But irreparable damage was done, completely disrupting and destroying the lives of the 125 families. The trap lines and the caribou herd on which they had relied for their subsistence vanished. 

The monetary settlement also didn’t extend to any of the other Dunne-Za people downstream who traded, hunted and relied on the major wildlife migration routes of the Peace and Finlay like the Doig, Halfway, Blueberry, Prophet, West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations—the latter community being where Napoleon grew up.

A year or so before the 2005 film project, Napoleon had been hired by the Treaty 8 communities to interview elders in the other Dunne-Za villages to record accounts of what it was like to be living downstream of the dam project. The impact of hearing the testimony from over 40 elders about that project left no doubt in his mind that Site C was another tragedy in the making and had to be prevented. “I interviewed Mrs Betty Willson and her sister, the mother and aunt of the current Chief Roland Willson of the West Moberly band. They were living on a trapline at Ingenika when the waters started to rise. No one told them that they were flooding the valley, there was nothing on the radio; suddenly the waters started to rise and they had to grab their belongings and evacuate their cabins. Their trails, campsites and burial grounds were flooded out. Coffins were floating around when the water uprooted the graves.”

The Tsay Keh people, who had previously subsisted largely on the caribou, and few of whom spoke English, were hurriedly provided with a “reserve” several hundred kilometres south near the pulp mill town of Mackenzie, with $35,000 to cover all damages to property. None stayed. Some returned to the banks of the Williston near the old Fort Ware and Ingenika, but many ended up impoverished and destitute in the cities.

The downstream interviewees all described devastating impacts on the once large woodland caribou herd that had covered the hills during their migration. The population had been decimated by the dam and had dwindled into small remnant herds that dispersed from the region. How they and other wildlife died was captured in horrifying accounts. As Napolean describes the scene: “The water was full of floating trees, debris and turbidity. Whole trees would suddenly shoot up from the bottom. With the migration route cut off, the caribou and moose tried to swim across but they couldn’t make it to the bank because the log jams and debris on the shores prevented them. They slipped and drowned because they couldn’t get out. The water was full of bloated corpses.”

The impacts continued to make living there impossible. The tangled decaying matter in the water made navigation impossible. With release of mercury gases from the rotting plant matter, people were warned off eating any quantity of fish from any of the downstream areas. The eroding banks continued to create turbidity. 

Napoleon also interviewed the white settlers impacted by the dam, some of whom are portrayed in the book This Was Our Valley by Earl Pollon and Shirley Matheson, whose lives were equally devastated: “One of these individuals was on the clean-up crew and had to pile all the animals up and burn them, filling the air with the stench of rotting burning flesh for months. Taken as a whole, it paints a horrific picture.” 

Just a baby at the time of the WAC Bennett dam building, Art was raised by his grandparents who still hunted and fished in a traditional manner. “The moose took over from the caribou as the dominant food source, but the decline of caribou had a big impact on them. They were a cultural keystone species.” Art’s uncle, Bud Napoleon, was one of the key interviewees in Hugh Brody’s classic book on the Dunne-Za called Maps and Dreams, the opening line of which reads “The hunting societies of the world have been sentenced to death.”

The proposed Site C dam is downstream of WAC Bennett Dam, just south of Fort Saint John. As you leave the dam and wind down along the Peace to Fort Saint John, you look down into this magnificent river valley that will be flooded. Napoleon, cameraman Ben Fox, and I spent a week filming this incredible area. It’s perfectly understandable why people of the region are so adamantly against Site C. The Peace Valley Environmental Association has been fighting this issue since 1975 and the town of Hudson’s Hope is amongst those against the dam. 

Napoleon and others of Peace country are planning to bring the message of not disturbing the Peace to Victoria next fall through a paddling and walking relay. Like the Salmon Migration, which recently highlighted the demise of this cultural keystone species in the context of fish farming from Kingcome Inlet to Victoria, the caribou migration might serve to highlight their demise through this incremental destruction of habitat. Napoleon and the Peace Valley Environmental Society are looking for people in Victoria who can help with the organizing of the various initiatives to raise awareness of Site C. 

We in Victoria and Vancouver are the beneficiaries of the existing dam. Every time we turn on our lights we should try and remember the legacy of what was lost. And then turn off our lights in the knowledge that we will be helping to prevent another tragedy in the Peace.

See www.peacevalley.ca for info and contact Art Napoleon at artnapoleon@yahoo.ca to get involved. 

Briony Penn PhD is a naturalist, journalist, artist and award-winning environmental educator. She is the author of The Kids Book of Geography (Kids Can Press) and a A Year on the Wild Side.