The environmental racism of Site C

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Some anti-Site C signage on the Boon family's farm. Image: Ken Boon/Used with permission

Sacred to the Dane-zaa and Cree people, British Columbia's Peace Valley is home to ancestral burial sites and precious biodiversity. All of this is being threatened and destroyed by the construction of the Site C dam, which would flood 128 km of vital riparian areas needed to expand wildlife migration corridors and ecosystems that are crucial for climate stability.

The West Moberly First Nations has launched an epic court case seeking to halt the dam, to be heard in 2022. As part of their seasonal round and traditional way of life, Dane-zaa people hunt and trap for an array of life, including caribou, elk, moose, goat, big horn sheep, cougar, bison, bear, muskrat, beaver, wolverine, otter and more, as well as fishing for arctic grayling, rainbow trout, bull trout, dolly varden and mountain whitefish. They uphold Treaty 8, an agreement with the Crown that they can continue these livelihoods for "as long as the grass grew, the river ran, and the sun shone."

In 2015, the destruction of the Peace Valley for the Site C dam began with the targeted cutting of trees that were home to eagles' nests. The clear-cutting of the valley's old-growth trees has been happening at a heart-breaking pace and scale. This past year, an enormous thousand-pound eagle's nest was removed by B.C. Hydro, one of countless acts of destruction that are making the valley inhospitable to the biodiversity that has long relied on this refuge area.

This summer, another Treaty 8 Nation, the Blueberry River First Nations, won a major case in the B.C. Supreme Court, with Judge Emily Burke agreeing that the province of B.C. has cumulatively damaged the land to such a degree that it has infringed the nation's treaty rights. The judge ordered the province of B.C. to stop authorizing activities that breach Treaty 8, and gave it six months to change its practices.

As Chief Roland Willson of the West Moberly First Nations said, this is an "amazing victory" for Blueberry. It is indeed heartening for all who love the Peace.

And yet, Hydro has clear-cut millions of trees on the islands in the Peace River and along the banks of the Peace River as it flows from Hudson's Hope to Fort St. John. This includes expensive, wasteful helicopter logging that costs an estimated $4,000 an hour, as well as enormous slash piles of trees up and down the valley, burned to heat the climate at the very time when we should have been protecting this ecosystem's forests, which are crucial for cooling the environment.

To date, the Site C dam is a case study in regulatory failures in B.C.'s government. Though the dam was successfully stopped in 1983 and 1993, the then-governing Liberals changed the laws to push the dam through without adequate oversight from the B.C. Utilities Commission. This bullying was not stopped by the B.C. NDP, even though they had the chance to stop it when they were elected in 2017. This time, regulatory systems have failed to protect the people's well-being from predatory corporate interests.

Since destruction of the valley began in 2015, two landslides and multiple small quakes have already rocked the region, which is also under attack from fracking. Along with West Moberly, Mother Earth is saying "no" to the Site C dam loud and clear.

I no longer have faith in the government systems that were supposed to uphold law, honour and the best science we had access to. Instead, I put my faith in the Earth itself, in Dane-zaa prophecies of dam failure, in the language of landslides, ever-intensifying heat waves and forest fires, the ongoing destabilization of the climate as we once knew it. In this environment, the dam will be unbuildable and unworkable, because the stability and moderation we once relied upon is ending, as a result of the arrogance and dismissiveness of those who would reject the advice of the stewards of the land.

These stewards are both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. The Rocky Mountain Fort Camp of Treaty 8 Stewards of the Land consisted of people coming together for a greater good in 2016, facing -30 degree weather and harsh conditions from a place of love and intergenerational care. Before they were removed by an injunction granted to B.C. Hydro -- from the same courts that refused to grant an injunction sought by West Moberly First Nations to protect sacred areas from being destroyed -- they stood for the best of what is possible from humanity.

They continue to stand today, despite SLAPP suits (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation), and threats from moneyed interests that will be the death of us all if they are allowed to keep destroying the natural climate solutions we genuinely need.

Today, if you have the stomach to drive along Highway 29 from Hudson's Hope to Fort St. John, you will see five expensive bridges being built for a new highway to accompany the Site C dam, which has seen its budget blow up to $16 billion in 2021. This highway goes through Ken and Arlene Boon's farm. The Boons live along the flood zone and are going through the painful ordeal of watching Hydro contractors push an expensive, multi-million-dollar highway through the farm that has been in Arlene's family for generations. Yet they remain, witness to colonial stupidity, and attentive to all the life that remains.

When I visited the Boons, we saw a black bear along the banks of the Peace River. Through the binoculars, in the distance, this bear ambled along the riverside that remains, for now.

Visiting the Peace Valley, one sees first-hand the effects of this $16-billion and growing blank cheque for climate destabilization, violation of treaty responsibilities and environmental racism writ large. Those of us who live in southern B.C. would never allow the length of the land from Vancouver to Whistler to be clearcut and flooded, and we should not allow this to happen up north on sacred Dane-zaa lands.

B.C. Premier Horgan may have won the electoral battle again in October 2020, but he is losing the climate war on behalf of B.C. As we face deadly heat waves and more record-breaking forest fires, the Peace Valley is a microcosm of how and why this failure is occurring. An exploitive mentality, disconnected from ecological grounding and lacking deep respect for Indigenous peoples and the lands they have lived on since time immemorial, means that business-as-usual is a terrible mistake for the times that we are in.

As Caleb Behn has so succinctly put it, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples means reconciliation with the land. Reconciliation is not throwing money at people after you have destroyed their sacred homelands and pure natural springs and forests.

Until we understand, as the Dane-zaa do, that people are one with the land, we will continue accelerating toward climate disaster. We need to collectively slow down, truly value the natural places that are inseparable from Indigenous peoples, and support this paradigm shift. From this place, it is clear that mega dams are not clean energy, and that it is misleading to greenwash the destruction that occurs for them. Just ask the Indigenous stewards who've valiantly stood up against Muskrat Falls and the Keeyask dam. We would be so much further ahead in our climate adaptation if we had simply protected these watersheds; if we had simply put the health of the rivers' water first.

The Site C dam is turning what had been a multi-use ecosystem -- habitat for wildlife, carbon-absorbing forests, river transportation corridor, farmland, tufa seeps, precious wetlands and bird refuge -- into a single-use mercury-poisoned reservoir, impoverishing and removing the natural benefits of the river so as to commodify and reduce the resilience of the Peace Valley.

The imposition of a mega dam does not stand up to the test of science or to the test of cumulative impacts. When we understand that human life is inextricably dependent on the life of our non-human relatives -- the bears, the eagles, the river itself, the web of life, the web of relationships, comes into focus in a way that mega dam projects not only obscure, but arrogantly destroy.

A "solution" proposed to truck trout past the dam is a ridiculous and insulting proposition on the part of Hydro. It ignores the fact that mercury poisoning arises from damming, and it speaks to the absolute disrespect for the trout themselves and for the Dane-zaa people who have lived with and fished for the trout for thousands of years. It is ecologically tone deaf, ineffective, and unsustainable to replace a priceless, well-functioning ecosystem that has the capacity to heal itself, with a dead, toxic reservoir, drowning out life in a way that will only backfire as it destabilizes and further heats up the climate we need to be cooling down.

The logic that turns vibrant, vital Indigenous homelands into flooded, poisoned reservoirs is what has driven climate change to the extent we're now in. What is needed is a paradigm shift that includes respecting Indigenous knowledge, Indigenous laws, biodiversity and long-term health. All this is blatantly missing from the Site C dam, the developers of which have learned to weaponize money to silence or intimidate critics as they continue with the status quo that has led us to heat waves, undrinkable water, more fragility and less resilience for the climate destabilization facing us.

I give the last word to the river itself. The Peace River, known as Saahgii Naachii in the Dane-zaa language, is a sacred gift from Mother Earth, the Creator, that we abuse at our own peril. The West Moberly First Nations' valiant efforts to warn the colonizers of this can be supported through Raventrust, which is fundraising for the upcoming legal battle, stepping up where B.C. has failed us.

Removal of thousand-pound eagles' nest in the Peace Valley, 2020. Image credit: John A. Wokeley

Rita Wong is a poet-scholar who has written several books of poetry. She understands natural ecosystems as critical infrastructure that must be protected and cared for in order to survive climate crisis. In other words, old growth forests are what remains of the Earth's lungs.

Image: Ken Boon/Used with permission

Editor's note, August 4, 2021: This story was updated to include an image showing the removal of a thousand-pound eagles' nest in the Peace Valley.

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