Voices from the broken land

By Briony Penn, June 2013

Three Peace River residents talk about the changes they’re seeing as resource extraction ramps up.

“The feeling you get up here is that the Peace region is the sacrificial lamb for bailing out the economic troubles of the province. For many people, we are out of sight, so out of mind. But even people in industry up here are thinking: ‘this is getting crazy.’” 

This is the message that local Peace River valley farmer Ken Boon wants people in the capital region to hear. Decisions about the Peace will be made in Victoria, yet many local residents and First Nations don’t sense that urban British Columbians are hearing their voices over the clamour of LNG boosters, political fear-mongering about job losses, and corporate ad campaigns. 

The craziness that Boon describes involves the rapid, aggressive changes to the land brought on by accelerated logging, mining, conventional oil and gas development, fracking, water withdrawals, pipeline stream crossings, large-scale hydro development (e.g. W.A.C. Bennett Dam and Site C), urban conversion and windfarms. Three years ago, the Chiefs of Doig, West Moberly, Prophet and Halfway First Nations in this region asked that a full cumulative impact assessment be done before any more development. The BC Liberals did nothing, so, in conjunction with the David Suzuki Foundation and Global Forest Watch Canada, a mapping project was initiated to determine the extent of the damage already done. 

When the mapped footprints of each of these land uses are overlaid wth each other, and the zone of influence of these changes on wildlife populations is calculated, over two-thirds of the region is what Dane-zaa elder May Apsassin calls “broken” country for wildlife and the communities that rely on them. In two of the five watersheds of this region, the percentage of broken country is over 90 percent. The final map provides a graphic portrayal of this broken country. 

I interviewed three people from the Peace to get a sense of what it’s like to live in the region. The first is May Apsassin, an elder from the Doig First Nation. Her territory is in the most heavily damaged, eastern part of the region. From the air it is a ragged patchwork of seismic lines, wells, and fractured fields. Industry tenures wallpaper the region, often overlapping. If the proposed LNG developments and the associated flooding of the Peace River for the Site C dam project proceeds, the impacts are set to triple in a region that is already besieged.


May Apsassin is a Dane-zaa oral historian with extensive knowledge and experiences of the Gat Tah Kwa (“Where Happiness Dwells”) region: “Now today we see so much oil-rig, roads, logging—everything they destroy in our hunting area. What about all these animals living in the bush? What do they think? 

“In 1950, there is no oil-rig. We are poor but no oil-rig, and we were happy and our animals are safe in their home. They weren’t run over on the road. The other day we come back from town and we see dead moose and her calf on road and not too far another dead one on the road…We are getting low on the moose…

“I talk to other elders. They feel very hurt about oil-rig, road, logging. It is destroying for these animals. What about owl? What about eagle? We never see eagle who is special to us. What they do is kill them on the road.

“Towards my area, there are a lot of places that I know with berries—high-bush cranberries, low-bush and blueberries—and they pull up berries where they put these rigs and wells. I think about all these berries that we use. My grandpa, chief of Doig, used to say: ‘There is lots of medicine there.’ I share my feelings with my younger elders in Doig. How do you people feel about these things? They say: It is no good but they fool our family with a little of the green paper. They pay a little but then go out and do all those things.” 


Ken and Arlene Boon are farmers and log home builders in the Peace River Valley: “In this country we are just getting lambasted from every direction. It is unreal what is going on here. We farm in the Peace Valley which we can’t emphasize enough is a unique place. To give you a sense of what that means, whenever a massive spring storm hits, the songbirds all show up in our fields because it is the only low elevation land with a milder microclimate. We will have bare ground down here and up top, they’ll be under eight inches of snow. There were so many songbirds last spring, the traffic on the Highway 29, which goes through our place, had to slow down for them. This is the valley they want to flood for Site C—the only low elevation valley! Where will the wildlife go? Where will the farmers go?

“With all the new roads, lines and pads, we don’t even recognize some areas anymore. Two pipeline crossings are proposed, one just above us—big pipelines, 42 inches that will end up in Alberta. Then there is shale gas extraction, which is marching closer every day. The increase in industrial traffic is already phenomenal on Highway 29; huge convoys going by of fracking and drilling equipment and the chemicals going into the wells that you know are having an impact in wilderness areas. If LNG goes ahead, this will triple the impact. I can’t imagine what this country is going to look like in 20 years.

“Technology has got way ahead of the science in an environmental sense. We already have 16,000 holes punched in the ground and we don’t know what the existing impacts are to the groundwater. Who is monitoring the disposal wells where they dump the toxic wastewater? As a farmer you know that water goes from high country to low country so when you fracture, bad water can travel to good. Then what about the quantity of water used, which once it goes into the fracking process, you are saying good-bye to it forever?

“We are asking for monitoring and a comprehensive land use plan. We are like mushrooms in the dark. We hear rumours, like wells being contaminated or companies paying hush money, but by the time you find out about these problems it’s too late. The crazy thing is this activity is mostly speculative and dependent on LNG going ahead.” 


Art Napoleon is the former chief of the Saulteau Band, a musician, and broadcaster, whose home territory is a shared territory of Saulteau and West Moberly of the Upper and Lower Moberly watershed: “Hunting as a way of life is dying. There is no polite language for it. It is dying, not because of our desires; it is the reality of what’s happening, which is devastating. I have had to turn off my ‘feelers’ because I can’t look at it and simply accept it. To us it is not Crown land; it is the land we were raised on, our ‘multi-purpose institution’ that we went on to get this and that, depending on the season—huckleberry or bull moose seasons—now you just can’t do it. The land feels dead, as if there is no life. It may not be the case, but that is what it looks like and feels like—like the spirit of the land is injured, or on its last legs. There are no more tracks or much interaction and many of the animals that were once all over the place are hard to find. 

“When I was 15 it was called ‘wild country.’ You only got so far by road and then it was wild and you continued on horse. You had to watch out for grizzlies and wolves would be around. Now it is: ‘I wonder if we’ll see anything.’ After three days of hunting last year, we found one skinny yearling moose. 

“It was really noticeable last summer; the hunt really went downhill quite drastically. It is largely because of the huge clearcuts of beetle kill forest that did not have to meet any codes, because they say the only way to get rid of it is to clearcut. So the moose have no cover and numbers are down. The oil wells are getting closer to the ‘rez’ [reserve]. Some of the traditional hunting sites have already been decimated by oil wells, flare pits and seismic lines. There are a lot of proposed coal mines up Johnson Creek. They would build a road so that through-traffic would be created directly from Prince George on the back roads. That would completely open it up even more, yet it is already devastated. 

“Seismic lines start getting used as wildlife travel corridors. If you have a few it’s not so bad, but when they are everywhere the traditional land users know there is an impact. It is easier for the wolves to get around. Old wildlife trails are kind of useless now. Some of them used to lead us to traditional hunting camp spots but we don’t use them anymore; it doesn’t make any sense. Following those trails you’ll come across a new road with heavy traffic cutting across it and you say, ‘Oh shit, I might as well have drove here.’ It makes no sense to ride anymore, so people have stopped using horses. There is a lot of traffic and it isn’t our private playground anymore. The communities need to be patrolling, but people are afraid that they’ll be hassled. You’re sharing it with all these strangers who don’t have the same connection to it that you do. Some of those people vandalize it. They see a cabin and they burn it down or steal from it. Not to mention irresponsible hunters who shoot at anything. 

“Pre-dam, the caribou herds were huge and roamed freely. The dam cut off the migration route and other factors diminished the numbers to the point that they are considered endangered. They don’t hang out in the places they used to. People never got compensation for the old flood, yet they want to proceed with a new flood. It is unjust. That whole beautiful valley would be put underwater and the road would be put around it into some beautiful country. 

“It is just more loss of land, loss of calving areas of the moose and pristine farmland—A1 agricultural land. It could be one of BC’s fruit baskets. The fish are already all contaminated by mercury, so it is just going to continue. Moberly, that river of ours, could back up a ways and become more stagnant than it is already. The water could flow backwards for some distance; it will be higher with more backwaters. All the wildlife will be impacted. 

“It is dangerous to say that it is too late because it is an argument the industries will jump on: ‘Well if it is destroyed anyway, we aren’t adding additional damage.’ That will probably be one of their tactics. It is a fine balance to show that we still use the land, but it is pretty hard to still use the land.”


For the complete atlas of land cover, industrial land uses and industrial-caused land changes in the Peace region see http://davidsuzuki.org/publications/reports.

Briony Penn PhD has been reporting on the environment since her first article in The Islander in 1975 on Garry oak meadows and has been a columnist in Victoria publications since 1993.