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First Nations split over BC Hydro's Site C dam megaproject

Some want to fight it; others want to negotiate for compensation worth millions

By Larry Pynn, Vancouver Sun

THE PEACE RIVER — BC Hydro’s planned $7.9-billion Site C dam has caused a split among Treaty 8 First Nations over whether to fight the mega-project tooth and nail or participate in negotiations leading to compensation settlements.

As a joint review panel begins an environmental review of Site C Monday on behalf of the provincial and federal governments, four First Nations communities have banded together to fight the project — Doig River, Halfway River, Prophet River, and West Moberly.

“We don’t want it,” Doig councillor Kelvin Davis told The Vancouver Sun during a tour of traditional sites along the Peace River. “The land is more valuable to us the way it is. For this to be under water is unthinkable.”

Three other Treaty 8 First Nations — Blueberry River, Saulteau, and McLeod Lake — have agreed to negotiate for compensation and have been offered “impact benefit agreements,” confirmed Dave Conway, BC Hydro community relations manager in Fort St. John.

“BC Hydro remains prepared to enter into discussions with the four remaining First Nations,” he said.

Liz Logan, Tribal Chief with the Treaty 8 Tribal Association, said in response: "Negotiating a benefits agreement for Site C is incomprehensible because this project and its impacts violate our treaty rights and you cannot attach a dollar value to that."

She said that impacts from existing dams on the Peace River have not been addressed and that BC Hydro's tactic is "disrespectful to the people and families that felt the impacts of the past projects."

Impact benefit agreements are for First Nations whose “treaty rights may be adversely affected by the project in ways that cannot be fully avoided or otherwise mitigated,” Conway added. Compensation could involve money, land, employment and contracting of work.

BC Hydro agreements in recent years with two other native groups over historic damages associated with the W.A.C. Bennett dam, built in 1967, and the Williston reservoir hint at the sort of settlements that might be possible downstream on the Peace River at Site C.

In a 2009 agreement, the Tsay Keh Dene received a one-time payment of $20.9 million — most of which was to be placed in an endowment fund — and annual payments of about $2 million to support a wide range of social, cultural and governance programs.

Other benefits include “direct award contracting opportunities,” assurances regarding annual road maintenance and capacity funding to allow the community to engage in discussions regarding impacts of new BC Hydro projects on the community.

In 2008, the Kwadacha First Nation received a one-time payment of $15 million and annual payments of $1.6 million. In both cases, the settlements followed legal action by the First Nations.

With aboriginals holding a powerful position on resource development in B.C., are such payments an attempt to buy their support?

“If it’s all negative impact to them, I don’t think I’d be supporting the project either,” Bill Bennett, Minister of Energy and Mines, responded in an interview. “All we’re trying to do is put them in a position where because they’re going to be impacted, they’ll have an opportunity to derive benefits from the project.”

BC Hydro’s mandate is to make sure all communities affected — but particularly First Nations — are in some way compensated or get a share of the benefits, he said. “That’s something we’re working hard on with the Treaty 8 First Nations. What you hope for, over time, is that they see the project doesn’t have all the negative environmental impacts they think it might have.”

Among the compensation touted for non-native communities with the Peace River Regional District is a legacy fund that would pay the district $2.4 million per year, indexed to inflation over 70 years, once the dam starts generating electricity.

BC Hydro is seeking to build a 1,100-megawatt dam that would flood 83 kilometres of the Peace River from almost Fort St. John upriver to Hudson’s Hope. The dam would be 1,050 metres long and 60 metres high and would also flood 14 kilometres of the Halfway River and 10 kilometres of the Moberly River.

Natives in the Peace country were nomadic — unlike coastal First Nations with their longhouses — and gravesites are strewn throughout the valley. But there are also traditional sites such as Bear Flat where they came time and again in summer to hunt and harvest; once they had a food supply, including fattened black bears before hibernation, they would move back into the bush to their trapping areas.

The Doig reserve, with about 300 members, is located about an hour’s drive to the northwest but that does not mean they don’t use the Peace River. “We enjoy this valley every year,” said Davis, wearing a beaver hat to protect his head from -20 C weather. “We know this region and what’s best for it. Site C is the wrong option and not needed for B.C.”

The Doig people host an elder and youth gathering at Bear Flat annually as a way to pass on cultural knowledge to the next generation, and the West Moberly also has an annual sweat lodge in the area.

On the banks of the Halfway River, near its confluence with the Peace, Robert Dominic, a member of the Doig elders’ council, pointed to some willows and noted that his people have traditionally harvested and dried the bark, then smoked it in rolling papers. “For your health,” he said, waving off any suggestion of hallucinogenic properties. “Pure medicinal tobacco.”

Davis looked up towards a grassy south-facing slope where the remains of Doig Chief Peter Attachie — one of the signatories to Treaty 8, which was negotiated in 1899 and included hunting rights — are buried on private farmland. “We still practice our rights, still hunt and gather in this valley. Nothing has changed in our culture and traditions.”

If the dam is approved, Davis said he is prepared to step in front of bulldozers to stop construction. “We’ll have to do civil disobedience, I guess.”

Roland Willson, chief of the West Moberly First Nation, has also told The Sun, “We’ll go to court if we have to,” to protect one of the last best places in a region dominated by resource development.

A report by the David Suzuki Foundation and Global Forest Watch Canada one year ago calculated there are 28,587 kilometres of pipelines, 45,293 kilometres of roads, and 116,725 kilometres of seismic lines used for oil and gas exploration within the Peace region.

Laid end to end, all those roads, pipelines and seismic lines would circle the Earth nearly five times, the report found.

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