100 days of destruction

By Briony Penn, December 2015

BC Hydro accused of divide-and-conquer tactics among Peace River Valley First Nations.

BC Hydro’s press release, announcing the Site C dam startup, called it One Hundred Days of Construction. Opponents from First Nations, local landowners, and groups ranging from BC Union of Municipalities to Amnesty International have characterized it as “one hundred days of destruction.” And it is a level of destruction that opponents are arguing should never have taken place, especially before all the judicial reviews and appeals were finished. 

The site where the clearing has started, at the southern confluence of the Peace and Moberly Rivers, was a mature forest which, like the rest of the 5340 hectares of valley to be flooded, has countless archaeological, sacred and historic sites, eagle nests, and wildlife corridors for moose, elk, bear and deer. 

Despite being asked by Treaty 8 nations to hold off until the judicial challenges were complete, BC Hydro has moved a convoy of heavy machinery onto the site through international contractors like ATCO. Six hundred workers have cut and mulched 540 hectares of the forest and moved one million cubic metres of dirt, pushing new roads towards areas like the Pink Mountain area that the Province is hoping to open up to fracking. This is what many believe is the real agenda behind Site C. 

West Moberly First Nations’ forester George Desjarlais spoke at a recent protest outside the Victoria court house where his Nation’s second Supreme Court petition for an injunction is being heard. He explained to the crowd that the mulching of the trees is yet another example of how this project is damaging an already heavily-impacted region. As Chief Roland Willson of West Moberly described it to the crowd, “Site C is a stupid project, no matter how you look at it, economically, culturally or ecologically.”

One of the principal concerns raised by Treaty 8 nations repeatedly since the building of the first Site A, or WAC Bennett dam, has been the bioaccumulation of methylmercury in their fish after dam building. Methylmercury is released in concentrated quantities when large swaths of forest and soils are rapidly disturbed and flooded. Toxins from the cambium of the trees eventually end up in the flesh of fish. Chief Willson had been part of the First Nation stakeholders asking for this research to be done by BC Hydro. When Hydro’s May results showed mercury still at dangerous levels in fish from Williston Reservoir—50 years after the dam was built—it seemed logical that further impacts were unacceptable. To make their point, Willson and Desjarlais delivered contaminated bull trout to Premier Christy Clark on the legislature lawn.

Willson’s community has been leading the latest legal charges, with the Prophet River and Fort Nelson First Nations, backed by the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) and the BC Assembly of First Nations (BCAFN), all arguing that the BC Crown violated the terms of the Site C Custom Consultation Process. 

At the protest outside the law courts in late November, Willson and Desjarlais also challenged the overstated claims that the dam building is providing 70 percent local jobs. “What is local? Edmonton and Toronto? I know of only one contractor that got a job, Paul Paquette, he’s my cousin. I wonder if he got a job because they needed a token Indian. Good for him, at least he’ll get some work in, until we stop him from here,” he said pointing to the court house.

Desjarlais says that the lure of “token Indian contracts” has been the principal divide-and-conquer tactic of BC Hydro in these tiny communities. Paul Paquette comes from Saulteau First Nation across the lake from West Moberly. The Saulteau community of 1200 has been “sent into chaos” over the last few years, according to Tammy Lee Watson, who stepped down from council when, as she described it: “It became a gong show. Our community is in a state of confusion and meanwhile all this work is happening. A small portion of our members are working there but there is heartache in our community. That is what I have to live with. If I am feeling this way, I can’t imagine what it feels like to our elders who are feeling helpless and voiceless.”

The issue came to a head in July of last year when a new chief and council were elected in a process that Watson claims did not follow guidelines about who was eligible. As one of the longest running council members, and having served with four chiefs, Watson had witnessed first hand that “this really deters members who would be great leaders from even running. There has been outright bribery…paying people to come and vote…and their airplane flights. You challenge it and then the response is: You can’t say that because we can sue you. It is so hand-tying and muzzling. People are afraid of telling the truth and being ostracized.” 

After two months with the new council, she resigned. “The [elected council] had changed the governance policy without proper process, so keeping my integrity and my own health were at risk and it was a real struggle with what was morally right about the decisions being made.” Following her resignation, the council formally removed her on allegations of breaches of confidentiality. Says Watson, “The council does not have authority to remove another council member. The community is supposed to vote on that.”

The most controversial move concerned a vote conducted online on BC Hydro’s Impact Benefit Agreement or IBA, dealing with Hydro’s provisions of a lump sum payment, annual payments, contracting opportunities and land transfers to the band to make up for the land lost due to flooding of the Peace River for the dam. It was reported in the media as a “breakthrough for BC Hydro” who this summer faced seven court challenges, three of which are under appeal. Typically, such governance changes require a well-defined process of regular general meetings followed by a vote through secret ballots. The new leadership, however, used an online survey which, Watson claims, didn’t follow these guidelines. Art Napoleon, one of the ex-chiefs of Saulteau First Nation, agreed, stating, “band members were never given a chance to discuss the IBA. People need meaningful discussions. General meetings were never held, while others did not receive the survey online. Phone messages were routinely ignored. I, myself, did not get a message or ability to vote, so people were omitted. Were these strategic omissions?” 

During the Site C joint review panel (JRP), Saulteau First Nation was united in its opposition to the dam. Napoleon asks, “What happened?” Watson notes a request by elders for a Site C steering committee following the review panel, to allow guidance from elders and youth, was denied by chief and council. This summer, after the process was questioned, Chief Nathan Parenteau explained to the media that community consultations were held with both on- and off-reserve members for several weeks in advance of the vote to explain the terms of the deal. 

The survey, which didn’t have the same confidentiality measures as a secret ballot, solicited 144 responses from an eligible 711 members, with 89 voting in favour. Napoleon observes: “[The Council] grandstanded in the media with BC Hydro even before announcing it to the community. Chief and council have connections to contractors, so what does that tell you?” Four ex-chiefs, including Harley and Jack Davis and Bud and Art Napoleon, had supported a request by disenfranchised community members to withdraw the vote until a legitimate process was put in place. In a newspaper interview on July 29, Chief Parenteau agreed to do that in the fall, but so far nothing has happened. As Watson points out, “Nothing like this has ever happened before, when four past chiefs objected to a decision by a current chief. He’s very young and inexperienced in his regard for traditional governance. From that point on, I had a sense of wanting to give up.”

Back at the courthouse, George Desjarlais points out that even if some First Nations have been defeated or have withdrawn from the legal challenges, the majority of the Treaty 8 people still reject the dam as stated at the JRP. “We are mountain Dane-Zaa, we don’t give up.” Watson feels her community has lost their voice and has tried to make that known: “I have talked to Hydro about that, that people are scared to say what their opinion is.”

The start of the 100 days of construction began immediately after the so-called breakthrough afforded by the Saulteau survey. Opponents across the spectrum question the prudence of launching a $9-billion project on the outcome of a questionable vote of 89 people. 

When questioned on allegations of a divide-and-conquer approach, BC Hydro responded: “It is important to understand that BC Hydro has many productive relationships with Aboriginal groups in the Peace Region. Offers of accommodation have been made to all of the First Nations that the independent Joint Review Panel determined to be significantly affected by the project. We are continuing to work hard to address the concerns of Aboriginal groups and identify opportunities for them to benefit from the project.” BC Hydro admitted that “there are some groups opposed to Site C. However, the project is clean and renewable and offers benefits to our province in terms of low greenhouse gas emissions.”

On November 19 a letter was sent by three Treaty 8 Chiefs, the UBCIC and BCAFN to the BC Climate Leadership Team that is heading off to Paris for the climate talks. It stated, “We are collectively advising you that the proposed Site C hydroelectric dam project is not ‘clean energy’ and reminding you that Treaty 8 First Nations continue to oppose Site C, and we are calling on you to oppose the Site C project with us.”

Briony Penn PhD has been reporting on the environment since her first article in The Islander in 1975 on Garry oak meadows. She is the author of the new book, The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan.