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BC Hydro Repeating Painful History with First Nations

Fifty-five years ago, construction crews started one of the tallest earth dams in the world 22 kilometres west of Hudson’s Hope, B.C. It was to flood a valley shaped by the Parsnip and Finlay Rivers.

This secluded paradise had been home to the Tsay Keh Dene for millennia. It was where they derived their livelihoods, established their identity, honoured their ancestors and envisioned their future. The band was not consulted about the project. No plans were drawn up to help them move ancestors to new burial sites or establish a new village.

W.A.C. Bennett, B.C.’s premier at the time, was consumed with his “two rivers” plan, developing hydro power both on the Upper Columbia and the Peace rivers.

The project managers of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam were in such a hurry they did not harvest the timber in the valley but crushed it under giant rollers now on display in Mackenzie. They also obliterated the rights of the Tsay Keh Dene. The project took seven years to complete, and employed more than 4,800 workers during construction. Today, a quarter of all electricity used in B.C. comes from the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, but far too few realize that their electricity comes at such a high cost to Tsay Keh Dene.

The tense relationship between BC Hydro and the Tsay Keh Dene is difficult, if not impossible, to put into words. Having been displaced from their original village, the Tsay Keh Dene have chosen the most northerly point of Williston Reservoir as the place to re-establish their village.

Here, they deal with high winds and dust storms — a consequence of living at one end of a 150 kilometre canyon. Here, they are ten hours away from Prince George and pay exorbitant prices for their most basic needs. Here, more than three decades after establishing their village, the federal government has yet to recognize the reserve. Here, they rely on projects, almost like handouts, from BC Hydro for their livelihoods.

For the past few years, this has involved collecting and burning the logs that were left unharvested and now float to the surface of the reservoir, endangering boats and barges. But this “contract award” is coming to an end in 2017.

An analysis of over 100 inspections by B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Office over the past five years reveals BC Hydro as the most frequent violator of the terms of their development licence — far worse than the much maligned pipeline companies developing similar sized projects.

Though next to a massive hydropower project, for the past half century the village has had to rely on diesel for electricity. In response to the Remote Community Electrification initiative of 2007, the Tsay Keh Dene proposed to build a biomass cogeneration system to supply their electricity and meet their heating needs. This would be fuelled using the waste timber collected from the reservoir or harvested from vast areas of beetle-kill forests.

The fuel collection and operation of the cogeneration plant would have created over a dozen sustainable jobs while providing the village with inexpensive, renewable heat and power. The available heat would have allowed the establishment of a greenhouse, creating yet more jobs and providing locally grown food for an affordable balanced diet.  

The biomass cogeneration plan won a $1.1 million Award from B.C.’s Innovative Clean Energy competition. Tsay Keh Dene needed funding to complete the project. They appealed to the federal government for a capital grant. They tried to sign a power purchase agreement with BC Hydro to secure debt financing.

But Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada said they would not provide a capital grant for the village to develop the project. BC Hydro said Tsay Keh Dene’s demographic and electricity usage forecasts were too high and that the village will never need that much power.  

BC Hydro’s narrow vision has led to continued reliance on diesel power, rather than re-directing federal energy subsidies toward bootstrapping economic development in the village.

Rubbing salt into this wound, BC Hydro declared that the diesel generators serving the community were old and unreliable. They used their technical authority to force Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada into paying more than $3 million for diesel generators that mining companies in the same region install at one-third the cost. This funding could have helped Tsay Keh build their cogeneration plant — instead they are still saddled with a foul-smelling, noisy technology that drains away community resources to some oil company’s profit margin.

Moreover, the community’s electricity demand is already exceeding BC Hydro’s long-term forecast and installed capacity. Now, blackouts and flickering lights are regular reminders of that.

Last year, a 2,700-litre spill of bunker oil in English Bay, from the cargo ship MV Marathassa, had all levels of government in a tizzy. The fuel for Tsay Keh Dene’s generators are delivered by articulated tanker trucks travelling on forestry roads. They have repeatedly spilled far greater quantities of diesel oil in the Willison Reservoir watershed — without a whisper from anyone in power.

Inadequate consultation and disrespect for First Nations was not excusable half a century ago when the W.A.C. Bennett Dam was built; it should be criminal now.  

The Tsay Keh Dene and other First Nations continue to be treated as if they are minors. This power imbalance forces the band to acquiesce on matters they should have control of. In spite of overwhelming scientific evidence about environmental and social harm from high dams, in spite of a sufficient supply of electricity for at least two decades, in spite of rapid progress in other low-cost and low-impact renewable power, BC Hydro continues to promote the Site C dam, the third dam the Peace River. And with that, they are repeating their pattern of violations of rights 70 kilometres to the west.

This is a guest post by Chief Dennis Izony of Tsay Keh Dene First Nation and Hadi Dowlatabadi, a professor and Canada Research Chair at the Institute for Resources and Environmental Sustainability, UBC.

Photo: Construction on the Site C dam by Garth Lenz.

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