battle for Peace Valley

Indigenous ties to the land fuel opposition to BC Hydro’s Site C dam

Against the odds, a diverse coalition aims to stop the megaproject in its tracks
Photo: Province of B.C.

This morning, activists began a hunger strike outside the offices of BC Hydro in Vancouver to protest the Site C dam now under construction in Peace Valley.

Recent court rulings have gone against those attempting to block construction of the dam. With Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Canadian premiers convening for a climate meeting just a few minutes away, opponents of the project are hoping to ramp up pressure on the provincial and federal governments.

After months of conflict, the controversy over the new hydroelectric megaproject in British Columbia is coming to a head.

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Protecting the Peace

On Family Day, Feb. 5, a diverse group of people maintained a land defender post against a project they say has no reason to be built — Crown corporation BC Hydro’s $9-billion Site C mega-dam.

Bigfoot’s granddaughter aims to see the treaty upheld for her past and future family.

Despite temperatures 10c below zero, which is warm for the area in winter, Helen Knott of Prophet River First Nation and others gathered at Rocky Mountain Camp near Fort St. John, B.C., and refused to leave. They object to the provincial government and BC Hydro’s plans to flood approximately 57,000 acres of the Peace River Valley, which is sustainable, fertile agricultural land, and held to be sacred by Indigenous people.

Knott’s grandfather was Chief Bigfoot, the last chief to sign Treaty 8, which guaranteed signatories and their people access to the territory. On this day Bigfoot’s granddaughter aimed to see the treaty upheld for her past and future family. To do so, she helped set up Rocky Mountain Camp, which consists of a lean-to, a fire pit and two portable cabins.

Industry vs. community

The hydroelectric project has been decades in the making, and proponents are well aware of staunch opposition. The West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations, both Treaty 8 signatories, took the B.C. government to court, seeking a nullification of the environmental assessment that approved the mega-project. The B.C. Supreme court denied the claim in late 2015, despite the project’s clear infringement of guaranteed treaty rights upholding hunting, fishing and trapping access. However, the decision left the door open to a potential court case that would determine whether treaty rights are being bulldozed, since the previous case dealt solely with the environmental assessment.

This gives Knott and company hope for the future of their territory. “I have to have hope to keep moving forward and doing the things we’re doing as a group” Knott told Ricochet in a phone interview. “We do our best to stay away from the darker side of the conversation.”

For Knott, the darker side of the conversation refers to the regional divide in opinion, largely fueled by the B.C. government, which endorses the idea that jobs trump the environment. The divide is not easy to avoid in the community. Knott has been told she is not helping the Fort St John area by taking a stand against the Site C dam.

While proponents laud the environmentally sound benefits of the green energy that hydroelectricity provides, in all likelihood most of the energy created through the project will power several Liquified Natural Gas stations, one of which will double B.C.’s carbon emissions, as reported in the Common Sense Canadian.

Concerns about violence against women

No B.C. government opted to push for Site C until Liberal Premier Christy Clark took the helm. Part of the reason for this is her scorn for what she calls the “forces of no” protesters, those whom she describes as protesters who are dissenting for the sake of dissenting. When it comes to industrial development, Clark says “you’re with us or against us.". Nothing could be further from the truth, Knott explained.

“We’re not protesting. We’re standing up to continued destruction.”

“We have farmers, businessmen and Indigenous people here,” Knott said. “The entire community, the people who have lived here for a long time have come together to defend our way of life. We’re not protesting. We’re standing up to continued destruction.”

The only people who are for the construction of the Site C dam, besides the unrelenting cheerleaders in government and industry, are those who have moved to the Fort St John area to make money.

“That’s where the division in the community is,” Knott said. “I get that people have families to provide for, but there has to be a point where people are satisfied with what they have. I think if the people who have moved here for jobs knew the link to unchecked violence, they would understand us better. It’s frustrating having a degree and not being able to afford the things industrial workers can.”

Knott, a social worker, equates the decimation of the environment to violence against women and Indigenous women in particular.

“With the influx of extra workers that will come during construction of Site C, there will also be a rise in violence and most of that violence will be directed at women,” Knott said. “BC Hydro and the B.C. government didn’t look at that aspect of the project before approving it.”

The Peace Project, funded by Status of Women Canada, did look at the issue and found some gaps in funding for men. Where violence against women is concerned, counseling and education for men have been overlooked.

Security guards from the Site C construction area have already displayed patriarchal behaviour when visiting the camp, said Knott. After some of the younger campers, Knott’s eight-year-old son among them, went for a snowmobile ride, the security guards issued a warning that kids shouldn’t go near to where equipment was working. “They walked right by me and the women at the fire and just spoke to the men in the camp,” Knott said. “That upset me, as a mom. To deliberately avoid speaking to women is disrespectful.”

Failure to include Indigenous concerns

Canada’s history of contempt for and failure to take into account Indigenous concerns has resulted in several court cases involving industrial projects. The Tsilhqot’in case is the Supreme Court of Canada’s latest decision regarding Aboriginal title, which was widely interpreted as a victory for the Tsilhqot’in over Prosperity Mine proponents.

In an effort to avoid the potential cost of a similar case, Knott travelled to Toronto and Ottawa, where she voiced human rights concerns surrounding Site C to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, organizations such as Amnesty International, and other dignitaries, including Green Party leader Elizabeth May. Although she received no response from the Prime Minister’s Office, the issue did resonate with some politicians, who in turn voiced concerns about the Site C dam in Parliament.

On February 22, the same day that B.C MP Nathan Cullen spoke in Parliament, a Vancouver court heard BC Hydro’s application for an injunction that could have barred groups from preventing work at the site or even training people to prevent work from happening.

This would effectively criminalize grassroots action camps in this instance, setting a dangerous precedent for Indigenous groups who wish to take similar action in B.C., which is becoming more popular with corporations pushing to expand their profit margins.

Justice Bruce Butler went on to approve the injunction on BC Hydro’s behalf on Feb. 29 in Vancouver, but rejected the clause that would have prevented grassroots training. Knott and company were to vacate the Rocky Mountain Camp by midnight on the same day.

With three appeals currently underway regarding Site C, Knott and company are planning their next steps.

“[It’s a] different story for everyone. I'm not at camp and work demands I cannot be,” Knott said following the injunction decision. “I cannot speak for the others are there currently, but we have all weighed the benefits and cons of adhering to the court order and not adhering to it. I’m going to lick my wounds then get back to raising awareness about Site C and helping out in any way possible in regards to the current court cases.”

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