Chief Roland Willson

‘You take us off the land, and you destroy a piece of who we are’

New book, Breaching the Peace, details devastating impact of the Site C dam on Treaty 8 First Nations

The following is an excerpt from Breaching the Peace: The Site C Dam and a Valley’s Stand Against Big Hydro, by Sarah Cox, released this month.  

For Chief Willson and other First Nations, BC Hydro’s response to multiple requests to leave the gravesites and sweat lodge untouched, and to reroute the new highway, encapsulated everything egregious and unbalanced about the entire Site C process.

It also underscored that the B.C. government, through BC Hydro, was in the driver’s seat, while the valley’s people were captive, seat-belted passengers speeding to a finish line they had no wish to reach.

As the chiefs soon discovered, the recommendations of Canada’s landmark Truth and Reconciliation Commission meant little when it came to Site C. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s election promise to forge a new relationship with Canada’s First Peoples came to mean even less when the new federal government did not exercise its power to pause Site C construction, at least until First Nations court cases were resolved.

Grand Chief [Stewart] Phillip, the long-standing president of the B.C. Union of Indian Chiefs, used the words “blatant hypocrisy” and “racist double standards” to describe the provincial government’s treatment of the First Nations members who were fighting Site C. Perry Bellegarde, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, declared that proceeding with Site C contravened both Canadian and international law, for it trampled on the ability of Treaty 8 First Nations to exercise their inherent and treaty rights.

Willson, for his part, said the B.C. government was punishing his First Nation because they refused to be, in Willson’s words, “good little Indians.”

I met up with Chief Willson in the unpretentious restaurant of the Sportsman’s Inn in Hudson’s Hope, where he lived with his wife, son, and daughter, commuting to West Moberly First Nations reserve on the shores of Moberly Lake. Cogent and expressive, the chief has a strong presence and an infectious laugh. At the time of our meeting, he had been chief of West Moberly First Nations for fourteen years.

Hardly a stranger to resource development, he sat on numerous boards and councils, including the B.C. First Nations Energy and Mining Council and the Pacific Trails Pipeline First Nations Limited Partnership. The amiable chief was a frequent presenter at forums and seminars across the country and in the United States, including in academic settings.

He addressed issues of pressing importance to First Nations, including the disappearance of caribou from the landscape and his people’s last-ditch efforts to resurrect the declining herds. He spoke passionately about Site C and the Peace River Valley, which he described as the only section of the riverscape left to First Nations for traditional practices guaranteed to them in the treaty their ancestors had signed.

Indeed, Chief Willson said, there were few places remaining anywhere in Treaty 8’s homeland where members could have “quiet, peaceful enjoyment of our treaty rights.”

Everywhere First Nations members looked, the landscape had been carved up by oil and gas development, mining, logging, agriculture, private land holdings, and the reservoirs from the previous two dams on the Peace River. Site C would flood the “last refuge” of river valley, and Chief Willson was determined to protect it. In doing so, he often pointed out that his First Nation was not opposed to economic development.

“What we’re opposed to,” he insisted, “are the unnecessary impacts of Site C. Site C is 100 per cent unnecessary.”

Just as coastal First Nations call the intertidal zone their dinner table, Indigenous peoples in Treaty 8 refer to the land as their grocery store. The valley bottoms slated for inundation by Site C are also their medicine cabinets and schools of traditional knowledge. Chokecherries, Saskatoon berries, and blackberries, among many other traditional plants, grow in abundance at Bear Flat.

The banks of the Halfway River, in the Site C flood zone, are important areas for harvesting wild mint and Labrador tea. On the southeast side of the confluence rests a forest of birch that has provided traditional materials and medicines, like chaga, for generations of Dunne-Za. Cache Creek and the Halfway River, along with Farrell Creek, also slated to be flooded, are prime moose-hunting areas.

Even though much has changed in just one century, the Dunne-Za are still part and parcel of the land. Losing the valley to Site C would be like losing an organ from your body, explained Chief Willson.

“It’s like cutting out a kidney. Our connection to the land is spiritual. We’re people of the land. You take us off the land, and you destroy a piece of who we are.”

BC Hydro had argued that Aboriginal traditional practices were adaptable and could readily be reproduced elsewhere. But the Joint Review Panel rejected BC Hydro’s interpretation of First Nations practices, calling it “superficial.”

The dam’s impacts on hunting, fishing, non-tenured trapping, and other traditional land uses would likely be adverse, significant, and impossible to mitigate, the panel concluded.

According to BC Hydro’s own documents, Site C would destroy forty-two sites of cultural and spiritual significance to First Nations: burial grounds, medicine collection areas, offering places for ceremonies and prayers, and locations associated with oral histories and place names such as Attachie and House before the Rocks.

More than two dozen sites with First Nations transportation values, including portions of trails, horse crossings, boat and raft crossings, and canoe and boat routes along the Peace and its tributaries, would also be erased.

In the words of Blueberry River First Nations member Clarence Apsassin, “You’re going to flood out a lot of traplines up that way, and our hunting territories, our old burial grounds. We don’t want that to happen. How would you like me to go build in your cemetery and destroy all the cemeteries! That is just the same thing as our burial grounds; you are doing the same thing.”

Site C, said Blueberry member Malcolm Apsassin, would “ruin our hunting, our trapping. We will just go down the drain. We will have no place to trap. I am still young, and I have a long ways to go, and I’ve got my family to raise, and if that dam comes up, it will just ruin our life.”

Excerpted with permission from Breaching the Peace: The Site C Dam and a Valley’s Stand Against Big Hydro, by Sarah Cox, 2018, On Point Press, an imprint of UBC Press, Vancouver and Toronto, Canada.

Sarah Cox is an award-winning author and journalist based in Victoria, B.C. She got her start in journalism at UBC’s…

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