By Dene Moore, The Canadian Press
FORT ST. JOHN, B.C. - Environmental review hearings into the massive Site C hydroelectric dam proposed by BC Hydro began Monday with a welcome to panel members from area First Nations and a reminder for them to listen with their hearts, not just their heads.
Dozens of aboriginal elders, community leaders and youth presented the panel with symbols of the land, from jars of wild berries to moose antlers and animal skins.
Gary Oker, of the Doig River First Nation, said the assessment process has been all about the dam project and what it has to offer, but the "cultural feast" presented to the panel serves as a reminder of what the land already offers.
"While you're here these are the things we want to talk about," Oker told the three members of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency panel that will conduct the joint federal and provincial review.
The panel will spend December and January travelling to hearings in communities throughout the region.
The $7.9-billion hydroelectric dam would be built seven kilometres downstream from Fort St. John in northeastern British Columbia and flood an 83-kilometre stretch of the Peace River upstream. It would also flood 10 kilometres at the mouth of the Moberly River and 14 kilometres of the Halfway River that both feed into the Peace River.
The Crown utility estimated that 30 homes will be flooded, and several landowners in the Peace River valley have formed an environment association to fight the dam.
Some member bands of the Treaty 8 Nations have yet to make official decisions for or against the project, but the Monday welcome left little doubt that many members of the aboriginal community are concerned.
"This project is in the midst of our traditional territories and this project will affect our treaty rights," Tammy Watson, a councillor with the Saulteau band, told the panel.
"Our community is not ready yet to take a stance on this project but we continue to meet constantly in our community to better understand how this will affect our treaty rights. I welcome you and I hope today you listen with your hearts, as well as your minds."
The dam would provide enough power for the equivalent of 450,000 homes and is the centrepiece of B.C. Hydro's plans for meeting electricity needs over the next 20 years, when the Crown utility anticipates a 40 per cent increase in demand.
Susan Yurkovich, BC Hydro's senior vice-president, told the panel there has been a lot of work done for the project, including consultations with 40 First Nations in B.C. and downstream in Alberta and the Northwest Territories.
"We believe that the substantial work undertaken as part of this assessment demonstrates that the potential adverse effects of this project can largely be mitigated through careful planning, comprehensive mitigation programs and ongoing monitoring during construction and operations," she said.
However, there could be "significant residual adverse effect" on fish and fish habitat, wildlife resources, vegetation and ecological communities and current use of land and resources for traditional purposes, she said. For these, the company proposes mitigation measures and ongoing monitoring.
"We recognize that for some, these measures will not satisfy all of their concerns," Yurkovich said.
But the project is expected to produce 10,000 direct jobs and employment for thousands more indirectly. It will provide additional electricity to meet peak demand and inject an estimated $3.2 billion in the provincial GDP, she said.
"B.C. Hydro believes that while the project has the potential to result in some significant, residual adverse effects, they can be justified in light of the need for the project and the benefits associated with it."
It would be the third dam on the Peace River, joining the W.A.C. Bennett Dam and the Peace Canyon Dam upstream.
Under a strict new timeline for federal reviews, the hearings will wrap up by the end of January and a decision is expected by mid-2014. The first two days of hearings will discuss the need for and purpose of Site C, as well as potential alternatives.