In the North East corner of BC, a dinosaur is lurking, an impending threat to all the people and lands around it. But this creature is not as the animals of old, whose footprints are found in the nearby riverbanks or in front of the Royal BC Museum. This apocalyptic monster is human made and already has devoured old growth forests and interfered with water ways. The name it goes by is Site C.
For several decades, the residents of this area have lived with the threat of this nightmare coming to life. As an election looms, promises of jobs and prosperity have been 'liberally' spread and unemployed workers are eager to fill the planned accommodation which is more like a modern hotel than a temporary work camp.
There was a time when this river was affectionately called, the “Mighty Peace” and it truly was a force to be reckoned with. Local First Nation communities lived here in their traditional territories and the signing of Treaty 8, first negotiated in late June 1899, promised their lifestyle could continue as before as well as establishing a peaceful relationship with the local farming community.
In the 1950s however, the need to provide power for homes and industries across our province (and the desire to sell power beyond our border) led to a four stage plan of hydro-electric projects.
Site A, the WAC Bennett dam was built in 1967 and at that time, was the largest earth-filled structure ever built, creating the Williston Lake reservoir, the largest lake in British Columbia and the seventh largest reservoir (by volume) in the world. 350,000 acres of forested-land were flooded causing loss of biodiversity, timber and mineral rights as well as having an impact on the local climate.
Site B, the Peace Canyon Dam, was built in 1980. The impact of Site A resulted in a detrimental impact on a number of communities, including the Tsay Keh Dene First Nation and the Kwadacha First Nation of the Sekani bands in the area. BC Hydro finally admitted in 1977, that the displacement of peoples led to social isolation (it was also economic) and had a significantly negative impact on their culture. Should this not have been a major factor to consider when deciding to move forward with Site C?
Although these dams were destructive to the surrounding areas and some First Nation communities, the need for the common good gave these projects a degree of acceptability. What followed however has been an overwhelming impact from oil and gas, mining and forestry developments. Site C is not only destructive then on its own but because of the cumulative effect it will have on the area. What is at stake for the First Nations involved is the destruction of the last 20 per cent of the river valley. In what way then, will they be able to continue in this area?
As Catholics, we might want to consider if we have a role to play in supporting the cause of the First Nations communities involved in the Site C issue. According to history, Father Albert Lacombe, a trusted Catholic missionary, had been asked by Canadian officials to be present to help convince the First Nations that it was in their interest to enter into a treaty. He was present on June 21, 1899 and assured the First Nations that their lives would remain, more or less, unchanged. It is easy to see, this is not the case.
Last year, the 94 “Calls to Action” from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations to the churches included the issues of Aboriginal spirituality, health and justice. These are issues that are directly impacted by the construction of Site C which has already begun, despite court cases currently ongoing.
Acknowledging that their apologies for harms done at Indian residential schools “are not enough,” Anglican, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and United church leaders on June 2, 2015, welcomed the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which they said will offer direction to their “continuing commitment to reconciliation” with Indigenous peoples and that the signatories “are committed to respecting Indigenous spiritual traditions in their own right.”
How can we then, as members of these denominations, not feel even more compelled to speak out in support of our First Nations sisters and brothers, when these spiritual traditions, ways of live and even livelihood are being destroyed by our own governments and in this supposed new era of reconciliation?
On December 8, 2015, our newly elected Prime Minister spoke about a ‘sacred obligation’ to Canada’s First Nations Peoples and that “This obligation is based on respect, co-operation, and partnership; it is guided by the spirit and intent of the original treaty relationship; and it respects inherent rights, treaties and jurisdictions, and the decisions of our courts.”
I sincerely hope that will be the case as a group of elders, youth, Treaty 8 members and allies are now travelling 4,432 km from Fort St. John and the banks of the Peace River, to Montreal.
They are making the journey to make sure the voices of the Peace River Valley are heard in the Federal Court of Appeal where the West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations are appealing a federal judge’s decision to approve the construction of Site C despite the project's violation of their constitutionally-protected Treaty and Aboriginal rights.
After months of waiting for a trial date, they are finally appearing in federal court on September 12th and in Ottawa the following day.
Our prayers and our donations as well as emails and letters to the federal government (no postage necessary) would be a good way to show our sincerity in our words about justice and reconciliation.
Current issue: Vol. 30, Issue 7,8&9, October 11, 2016