I round a bend on Highway 29 just west of Fort St. John and a magnificent river valley opens up before me.
At the bottom of the winding road, farmers' fields stretch as far as the eye can see along the banks of the mighty Peace River.
This is the same valley explorer Alexander Mackenzie paddled through in 1792, noting in his journal that the valley was so rich in wildlife that in some places it looked like a barnyard.
“Ninety per cent of the people who take that drive remember it for a lifetime,” says local rancher Leigh Summer. [view:in_this_series=block_1]
Today, the highway toward Hudson’s Hope is dotted with trucks carrying canoes and kayaks, all converging upon one spot: the Halfway River bridge, where the 9th annual Paddle for the Peace will launch.
The Paddle is an annual pilgrimage for people who want the valley to be protected from BC Hydro’s proposed Site C dam, which would flood 83 kilometres of the Peace River and 24 kilometres of its tributaries. The two-hour paddle takes place on a section of the river that will be flooded if the dam is built.
Highway 29 between Fort St. John and Hudson’s Hope is home to several billboards with slogans like “Keep the Peace,” “Site C Sucks” and “Save the Peace Valley.”
With the federal and provincial governments expected to make their decisions on the project this fall, there’s an undercurrent of tension at this year’s Paddle as farmers, ranchers and First Nations wait to see what will be next in their decades-long fight to stop the dam (the project was first rejected in 1982).
The people of this area know a thing or two about dams given that the Peace River is already home to two major ones.
Leigh Summer was just 14 years old when his family’s ranch was flooded by the W.A.C. Bennett Dam in 1967. His grandparents homesteaded that land in the 1920s and his mother was born there.
“We were told it was going to be good for the economy, so we took it in stride,” Summer says while sitting in his boat with his family during Saturday's Paddle for the Peace.
The W.A.C. Bennett dam stretches two kilometres across the head of the Peace canyon and creates Williston Reservoir, B.C.’s largest body of freshwater.
“I think the Williston Lake has paid dividends to the province,” Summer says. “But I think the time has come to realize that it’s a decent energy, but it’s a thing of the past.”
Now, 47 years after being flooded out for the first time, Summer's ranch is at risk again — this time from BC Hydro’s proposed third dam on the Peace, dubbed “Site C.”
With a price tag of $7.9 billion, the Site C dam is the largest infrastructure project in Canada and would produce about 5,100 gigawatt hours of electricity each year. But the demand for the power has been questioned by economists and by the joint review panel that reviewed the project.
The panel's report, released in May, was inconclusive, saying both that the dam could provide cheap, reliable power for B.C. and that the demand for that power is not clear. The panel asked the provincial government to refer the project to the B.C. Utilities Commission to analyze the costs — something the province has yet to do.
“Justification must rest on an unambiguous need for the power and analyses showing its financial costs being sufficiently attractive as to make tolerable the bearing of substantial environmental, social and other costs,” the report says.
If the dam is built, Summer would be one of dozens of families who will impacted by flooding, slope instability and road re-alignments. His family could end up with a road through the field in front of their house. He finds it galling how BC Hydro talks about this being the Crown corporation's last chance to build a big dam.
“Why is this the last if this is such a good thing? They are admitting that hydro electricity was good in the 19th and in the 20th century. We’re in the 21st century … we have to either look to conservation or other forms of energy,” he says. “It’s so archaic. Building this dam isn’t even progress for the province.”
Leigh, his wife Darcy and their three young children spend most of the summer enjoying the Peace River. Their youngest son, a fifth generation Peace Country boy, is even called River.
Leigh Summer's family ranch was flooded by the W.A.C. Bennett dam in 1967.
River Summer spends a lot of time on the Peace River with his parents and two older sisters.
“I’m just sad at what they lost already with the two valleys,” Darcy says. “When you see pictures and when you do research on that, it was just beautiful, it was so magnificent. To think that we’re going to keep destroying it.”
This stretch of the Peace valley between Fort St. John and Hudson’s Hope is the last intact part of the river in British Columbia.
“Why can’t we leave a piece of the Peace intact for future generations?” Leigh says, his daughter sitting in his lap. “Let them have a choice. If we flood it, we take that choice away from them, from ever seeing what the Peace River was like.”
Out of sight, out of mind for the voting majority
For those trying to stop the Site C dam, one of the biggest challenges is that this part of the province — a 14-hour drive from Vancouver — is out of sight, out of mind for the voting majority of the province.
A September 2013 poll commissioned by BC Hydro found only four in 10 British Columbians had even heard of the Crown utility’s proposal to build a third hydroelectric dam on the Peace River.
“That’s what this event is all about,” says Roland Willson, chief of West Moberly First Nation. “There are people who are making a decision about this valley who have never even been here.”
Roland Willson, chief of West Moberly First Nation.
“There is nothing better in the world than to be able to put your boat on the water or go stand knee deep in the water and catch a fish and eat that fish. And drink the water. That in itself is something that’s worth saving,” Willson says.
Because the Peace River is the only river to break the barrier of the Rocky Mountains between the Yukon south almost to Mexico, it has provided a gateway for wildlife and people for thousands of years.
Although few British Columbians make it up to the Peace region nowadays, Fort St. John is the oldest non-native community in British Columbia, established as a fur trading post in 1794 — and First Nations have been here more than 10,000 years. Indeed, the Peace got its name from a peace treaty signed between the Danezaa people, called the Beaver by the Europeans, and the Cree signed in 1781.
As I float down the river in one of about 250 boats taking part in the Paddle, First Nations drummers start to sing alongside. At just that moment, an eagle swoops overhead.
About 250 boats were on the water for Paddle for the Peace on Saturday July 12.
“We’re prepared to take any means necessary to stop this project in support of the Treaty 8 First Nations leadership,” Grand Chief Stewart Phillip told Desmog Canada at the Paddle. “I really hope that this project is buried once and for all.”
People aren’t the only ones who will be impacted if the dam is built.
“Site C will make a major contribution toward severing that Rocky mountain chain that goes all the way from Yellowstone to Yukon,” says Sarah Cox, senior conservation program manager for the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.
“The science shows that vulnerable species like grizzly, wolverine and lynx will be greatly impacted to the extent that populations may not be recoverable,” she says. “It’s hard to imagine that the beauty of this valley will be completely flooded and underwater.”
Last week, the Sierra Club BC, Peace Valley Environmental Association and Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative launched a new website, StopSiteC.org, where citizens can sign a petition to voice their opposition to the project.
'The Peace … has paid her price'
Doug Donaldson, the NDP’s aboriginal affairs and reconciliation critic, spoke to the crowd of paddlers before they hit the water.
“I think that this river and the Peace River Valley and you have given enough to the province,” he said.
A billboard protests the Site C dam above Bear Flats in the Peace Valley.
Organizers said BC Liberal representatives were invited to speak, but did not attend. Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett has said he has not made up his mind about the dam yet.
For Leigh, who’s watching and waiting to see whether his family may be uprooted a second time by one of BC Hydro’s dams, the Peace has shouldered more than its fair share of the impacts of providing power for the province.
“The Peace River in British Columbia has paid her price for prosperity,” Summer says. “Do we have to completely destroy the whole Peace River in all of B.C.?”
He’s frustrated that the province has exempted the project from the review of the B.C. Utilities Commission, the independent regulator that turned the dam down in 1982.
“That’s wrong. We call ourselves a democracy; that’s not democracy,” Summer says.
“The truth would set us free here, but the truth never gets to the right people.”