The Peace River is the foundation of a major watershed in northeastern BC. It lies within the territories of Treaty 8 First Nations. The 39 Nations who are signatories to Treaty 8 are part of the Sicannie (Sikanni), Slavey, Beaver (Dunne-za), Cree, Saulteau, Dene and Mechif linguistic groups.
By Sierra Club BC Environmental Educator, Kirsten Dallimore
Sierra Club BC’s Education Team has been hard at work! Just last week, we delivered thirteen school-based workshops and two professional development workshops for teachers in Treaty 8 territory of the Dane-zaa people. More specifically, we taught in the communities of Dawson Creek, Wonowon and Fort St John during Science Odyssey, thanks to the support of NSERC’s PromoScience Program.
It turns out we arrived at a good time in the season. We heard that even last week the snow was still flying there, so we were very thankful to feel some warm sunshine. The sun was working hard to melt the remaining patches of snow left in the forests, the robins were singing in the tree tops, and the new buds were forming on the trees in the area. It was an idyllic spring scene.
This May backdrop provided the perfect setting to launch our exploratory and hands-on learning programs both inside and outside the classroom doors. These activities help students make a personal connection to and develop a greater sense of place in their own community.
For example, the People and Plants workshop we ran focused on learning about local plants’ ecology and habitat and their Indigenous uses. In the northern edition of this workshop, we explored the importance of Saskatoon berry bushes, cottonwood trees, Labrador tea and the birch tree.
I am happy to report that most of these kids still have the opportunity to go out and collect these plants and that they still grow in their communities. I had the privilege of hearing stories about students collecting Saskatoon berries with their families on their own farms and making jam and baking pies. Others shared their experiences of collecting Labrador tea leaves and drinking the tea themselves for medicine.
Making birch syrup is also a popular hobby in the north. Students in Wonowon were particularly proud to share their knowledge about this tradition. They truly appreciate the work that takes place within their own community by collecting the sap in the early spring, then boiling it to make the syrup.
I felt there was a spark that was ignited within the students while learning more about taking care of and respecting nature. This got students thinking about how they are responsible for being stewards of the land and practicing the sustainable harvesting of local plants. Most importantly, it’s also up to them to share this understanding with members of their family and community.
Since my first visit, the Peace River Valley has run deep in my heart. For what will this place look like in 100 years? Will we have done what needs to be done to protect this place? It is always a gift to have the opportunity to visit the Peace River Valley because it is a place of great natural and cultural history. The relationship that people who live along the Peace have with the land and water is truly sacred.
When I go to stand and look down on the river, I see a river that is calm and free flowing and I also see a river that is raging and mighty. The Peace River is most definitely a mighty force of nature carving out this grand northern landscape. So I stand on its shores and wonder; what are the stories this river can share with us? What are the lessons we must learn from it? How can we best take care of this river so that it is able to keep flowing freely right now and in the future?
Thank you School District 60 (Peace River North) for inviting us to be part of your community again this year, and School District 59 (Peace River South) for welcoming Amira and I for the first time. I wish everyone the best for a beautiful spring and that you, too, may get the chance to stand on the mighty shores of the Peace River one day.
Feature image by Graham Osborne.
By Galen Armstrong
November 1, 2018
Last week, the Supreme Court of BC handed down a big disappointment. The court did not grant a requested injunction to West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations, which would have stopped the destructive and expensive work on the Site C dam in northeastern BC until the Nations’ treaty rights case could be heard.
The judge hearing the injunction case did offer one slight silver lining, saying the full Treaty 8 infringement case must be completed before the Peace Valley is flooded. Still, all other destructive activities – land clearing, material relocation, excavation, road-building, and other work digging us all further into a $10.7+ billion dollar hole – can continue. Valley flooding is scheduled to begin in 2023, and the judge believes the full treaty trial can be completed by then.
BC and Canada have made a lot of big mistakes. And this is one it’s not too late to correct. Here are five reasons the Site C dam should still be stopped:
- Treaty rights cannot and should not be ignored. It’s shameful that BC’s government, despite having promised to uphold the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), is determined to forge ahead with this project. The Site C dam would flood more than one hundred kilometres of the Peace River and its tributaries, in a place where 85% of the territory is within 500 metres of industrial disturbance. Land and water available for First Nations to practice their traditional way of life is ever diminishing, and this is in direct conflict with treaty rights.
- It still makes more financial sense to stop the dam, than to continue it. We’re in year four of a ten-year project, and there are billions on the table that could still be saved. Once upon a time, this dam was expected to cost $6.6 billion. The official price tag is now $10.7 billion. Expect it to soar higher. And this does not include, of course, losses of farmland, ecosystem services, edible fish, or sacred cultural and historical areas. Some families have already been forced to leave. Others, including the Beam family and farmers Ken and Arlene Boon await their eviction notices. Our hearts are with them. And then there’s the next legal challenge. If West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations win their civil treaty rights case, BC Hydro will have nothing to show for the billions of ratepayer dollars they’ve spent.
- Dam safety concerns have not been addressed – and are not going away. A major landslide – the Old Fort Slide – started a month ago, forcing the evacuation of an entire community – and it’s still moving. It’s only a kilometre from Site C but BC Hydro says there is no evidence that the slide is related to the megaproject. There have been calls for an independent safety review, and they have been ignored. This landslide should make us all think twice about the wisdom of building a dam on shale – and BC should conduct an independent safety review.
- While climate chaos stares us down, our governments are pushing LNG. The BC government is still denying a Site C-LNG connection. But the implication that Site C power will be used for LNG has been there all along, and has resurfaced with the approval of LNG Canada. Site C is being paid for by BC Hydro ratepayers, and oil and gas corporations like LNG Canada have been offered big electricity discounts to support fracking in northeastern BC for LNG export. Fracking and producing LNG will make our provincial climate targets impossible to meet. On top of this, a new study shows that dams and their reservoirs produce 25% more methane – a potent greenhouse gas – than previously thought.
- Concerns about downstream impacts have not been addressed. The Peace River flows into northeastern Alberta, into the Peace-Athabasca Delta in Wood Buffalo National Park. People living in and around the delta saw big impacts when the Bennett Dam was built, and we expect to see further impacts with Site C. This area is one of of the world’s largest inland freshwater deltas and a global treasure. UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee called on the Government of Canada to address impacts to the delta, and their response is still forthcoming – all while dam building continues. Read more about Treaty 8 Nations of the area and threats to the Peace-Athabasca Delta.
We haven’t given up the fight
We are continuing to stand with Treaty 8 First Nations against the Site C dam. I attended and tweeted from two days of the injunction hearing and spoke at a rally outside the courts. Earlier this year, we participated in a 7-stop tour organized with Ken and Arlene Boon, organizing events on Salt Spring Island and helping out in Sooke. Over $13,000 was raised across the tour to support West Moberly & Prophet River First Nations legal challenges, as well as the Peace Valley Landowner Association. Sierra Club BC’s Quadra Island Local Group raised $3,500 in two hours at their coffee house with musician Luke Wallace as part of the tour.
We’re keeping Site C’s impacts in the national and international spotlight. After we worked with the Mikisew Cree First Nation to initiate a UNESCO mission to Wood Buffalo National Park and the Peace-Athabasca Delta within it, Canada refused to assess Site C’s impacts on the delta. So I took a trip to Wood Buffalo with photographer Louis Bockner to draw attention to this huge, internationally significant delta. Reporter Judith Lavoie joined us to report on the story. Several short videos and a collection of stunning photographs highlighting threats to the delta were released in a series by The Narwhal in June. Canada was given until December 1, 2018 to come up with an action plan to properly protect Wood Buffalo National Park, but now the deadline has been pushed to February 1, 2019. We’ll be holding the federal government’s feet to the fire on its responsibility to protect this treasured landscape.
We’re continuing to call out the BC government’s support of LNG development. We believe Site C power is integral to planned LNG industry development, and this means taxpayers and ratepayers will be on the hook for enormous public subsidies to fracking and LNG companies. We’ve sent a letter calling on the BC government to cancel public subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and invest in alternative renewable energy projects.
We are working for bigger changes to make sure projects like Site C never get this far again. The BC government’s decision to proceed with Site C underscored the need for electoral reform. It is highly unlikely projects such as Site C would have been approved under proportional representation. Voters who want to see politics done differently, including a reduction of the influence of powerful insiders, need to come together to vote in favour of proportional representation this fall.
I’m leading a team of volunteers making hundreds of phone calls to Sierra Club BC supporters to encourage people to vote for Pro Rep. Find out more about the referendum and how you can get involved with this campaign here.
Thank you for standing with us.
Feature image by Louis Bockner.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Oct 24, 2018
Sierra Club BC released the following statement from Peace Valley campaigner Galen Armstrong in response to the B.C. Supreme Court’s rejection of West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations’ Site C injunction request:
“Today’s decision is a major disappointment.
“Treaty 8 First Nations deserve to be heard on the question of whether flooding more than 100 kilometres of the Peace River and its tributaries would be an infringement of their treaty rights. This question needs to be addressed before the Peace Valley is flooded.
“The provincial government’s decision to push forward with the Site C dam against the wishes of First Nations is a big step backward in the process of reconciliation.
“The Site C dam is a costly cultural, environmental and economic mistake. A major landslide still underway near the dam site highlights safety concerns for those living nearby and raises the spectre of BC Hydro ratepayers footing an ever-growing bill for the $10.7 billion dam. We are paying to subsidize the cost of electricity for oil and gas corporations like LNG Canada whose fracked gas operations will make our provincial climate targets impossible to meet.
“It is the responsibility of our provincial and federal governments to hit pause on the project until – at the very least – Treaty 8 First Nations can have their day in court on the question of treaty infringement.
“There is still time to cancel the dam, save billions of dollars of public money, and move forward again with reconciliation and our governments’ commitments to uphold the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
Site C is the largest of many industrial projects in Northeastern B.C., which is Treaty 8 territory. Nations such as West Moberly and Prophet River have the legal right to hunt, fish and continue their cultural practices, but with roads cutting through the landscape to make way for new fracking wells, undisturbed land and clean water is in short supply. The cumulative impacts from industrial harms has all but been ignored by the provincial and federal governments.
Peace Valley Campaigner
Sierra Club BC
Peace Valley Campaigner
Sierra Club BC
The West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations are pursuing legal action over the Site C dam with the goal of stopping the dam completely. They argue that the exercise of rights protected by Treaty 8 requires the protection of the Peace River Valley. Until the case is resolved, they have asked the court to suspend construction in key areas. We expect the court’s decision to be released in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, Adrienne Peacock has provided this guest blog shining a light on the problem of mercury contamination of fish, one of the issues raised in the court case. Adrienne Peacock worked as a consultant to the Peace Valley Environment Association, 1981-82. She has a PhD in Zoology (UBC) and taught environment science/biology at Douglas College for many years.
West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations have been in court seeking an injunction to halt work on the Site C dam until their case for infringement of Treaty 8 can be heard.
One of the many contentious issues is the possibility of mercury contamination of fish, particularly preferred eating fish – top predators like bull trout – in the Peace and its tributaries, as a result of the mobilization of mercury in the flooded areas.
On May 12, 2015, West Moberly Chief Roland Willson delivered 90 kilograms of bull trout, a preferred eating fish, to the BC Legislature. The West Moberly and McLeod Lake bands had received the results of a study which examined 57 fish taken from the Crooked River, a river where fish migrate from the Williston reservoir. Ninety-eight percent of the fish samples contained mercury levels above provincial guidelines (above 0.5 parts per million, or ppm).
In court, BC Hydro claimed that mercury levels are now within acceptable limits and argued that the judge does not need to consider mercury biocontamination because 1) such bioaccumulation won’t happen until after inundation, hence not relevant to this injunction and 2) it’s a matter of moderation in consumption. They have not explained how their results are so different from the 2015 study.
Methylmercury concentration in fish has been known since the 1970s and it is of great concern for human consumption of fish. Methyl mercury poisoning is known as Minamata disease, because mercury contaminated fish in Minamata, Japan, resulted in 46 deaths and hundreds of serious afflictions, from mental disability to crippling paralysis. Low level mercury toxicity is often difficult to diagnose because it can cause subtle nerve disorders.
Mercury is transformed from an inorganic form to an organic form that can enter the food chain when bacteria in soil and vegetation are flooded as a result of dam construction. The organic form then accumulates in each level of the food chain, with the top predators accumulating the most – bioaccumulation. The issue is sufficiently serious that the province has fish consumption warnings for bull trout and dolly varden taken from the Williston reservoir (Healthlinkbc.ca).
In 1982, at the first British Columbia Utilities Site C Hearings, the Peace Valley Environment Association presented evidence, which was apparently new to BC Hydro at that point, that creation of any reservoir is likely to result in predatory fish mercury levels in excess of the Canadian marketing standard of 0.5 ppm.
An advisory for Health Canada recommends that consumption of mercury contaminated fish be limited to one meal per week for adults and much less for children and women of child bearing age. At the press conference in 2015, Chief Willson held up a small candy, a foil-wrapped Hershey’s Kiss, to illustrate how much fish a woman of child bearing age could safely consume from the Crooked River, based on the levels of mercury found. This elevated level was found 50 years after the creation of the Williston reservoir.
Scientists have debated how long it takes reservoir fish to return to pre-impoundment levels of mercury. A recent published study from Quebec1 concluded that in fish-eating fish, that is, predatory fish, mercury levels were up to 8 times higher in reservoirs than in natural lakes and generally took 20-31 years to return to pre-impoundment levels, if there is no additional flooding. In non-fish eating fish, the return to natural levels of mercury seems to be much faster, 10-20 years.
In the online journal, scientists1 suggest that certain reservoir characteristics play a major role in determining the intensity and duration of after-impoundment mercury increases in fish, characteristics such as: flooded area, annual volume of water flowing through the reservoir, filling period, water temperature, and percentage of flooded area located in the drawdown zone. In other words, there are a lot of variables that could affect the timing of a return to pre-impoundment levels of fish mercury.
Dr Drew Bodaly, presenting expert evidence for the PVEA in 1982, was able to predict that even a 2% increase in surface area is sufficient to cause a mercury problem.2 The Site C impoundment would result in a 50% increase in surface area. And with the continual sloughing that is expected in the Site C impoundment (and is seen now along the river and in the Williston reservoir) there will be continual flooding of new soil and vegetation.
BC Hydro has been studying the problem3 and the situation is not quite as clear or benign as their lawyer presented in court. For example, bull trout at 700 mm in length tested about twice as high as levels allowed to be sold in grocery stores. There is clearly a lot that is not yet known about the accumulation of mercury in fish.
If Site C goes ahead, fish might have to be off the table for Chief Willson, and anyone who wants to eat fish from the Peace system, for many, many years to come.
By Adrienne Peacock
Find out how you can help support West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations at witnessforthepeace.ca.
Call on Prime Minister Trudeau to stop Site C construction.
1 François Bilodeau, Jean Therrien & Roger Schetagne (2017) Intensity and duration of effects of impoundment on mercury levels in fishes of hydroelectric reservoirs in northern Québec (Canada), Inland Waters, 7:4, 493-503, DOI: 10.1080/20442041.2017.1401702
2 BCUC Site C Hearings: Transcript Vol. 94, 4 August, 1982, p. 15449
Feature image: Peace River Valley by Louis Bockner.
By Galen Armstrong, Peace Valley Campaigner
As we watch with disgust as children are separated from their families and detained on the US-Mexico border, we must also take a wide-eyed look at our history of forced separation of children from their families and Indigenous peoples from their land here in Canada.
The residential school system began in the 1830s in Canada and forcibly removed 150,000 Indigenous children from their families, with the last of these schools closing in 1996 –only 22 years ago.
Taking Indigenous children away from their families didn’t stop with the end of residential schools. Canada removes Indigenous children from their families at a rate that ranks among the highest in the developed world. In 2016, First Nations, Metis and Inuit youth made up 52% of foster children younger than 14 in Canada, but represented only 8% of the same age group. These numbers only account for children in private households, and are estimated to be much higher if they included those who live in group homes, shelters or mental health facilities.
Last week, I spent time in Fort Chipewyan, home to a residential school referred to as ‘the Mission.’ Virtually every elder we spoke with had attended the school. While some elders told us that the experience ‘wasn’t so bad’ and that some of the teachers meant well, we also heard about very young children being taken from their homes, from their mother’s arms, and allowed only to visit their families for a short time in summer, if that. Some families followed their children, relocating to Fort Chipewyan so they could be near to them.
This is our colonial history, and it’s not all history. Indigenous families—in recent decades and today—are still being disrupted and forcibly relocated not only for the purposes of assimilation, but also to promote natural resource development.
In the late 1960s, the home of the Tsay Keh Dene was flooded as the Bennett Dam created the Williston Reservoir in north-eastern BC, and families were forced to flee.
Meanwhile, downstream in Fort Chipewyan and around the Peace-Athabasca Delta, the water dried up as the reservoir filled. Once it was full, the water returned, but not in the same way. The spring freshet was no longer predictable or guaranteed. Fishing and hunting areas accessible by boat since time immemorial were now blocked off by low water, according to elders who were raised living off the land and the delta. These changes had a devastating impact on families’ abilities to feed themselves and pass on important cultural and ecological knowledge to their children.
A few years ago, the crown corporation BC Hydro apologized for the flooding of Williston Reservoir and the destruction of Indigenous communities. In spite of this apology however, a new dam is under construction without the consent of the Indigenous peoples whose territory it will impact. Today BC Hydro continues its long search for bedrock and prepares to build Site C – the third dam on the Peace River.
If the Site C dam is built, Indigenous families will once again experience disruption and harm.
Treaty 8 Nations in northeastern BC have been leading a powerful fight, including a lawsuit launched by the West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations to uphold their rights and be able to continue their way of life in the Peace River Valley. Other Treaty 8 Nations downstream including the Mikisew Cree are advocating for restoration of the delta, impacted not only by the Peace River dams but the Alberta tar sands upstream on the Athabasca River.
Climate change, largely caused by industrial activity that displaces people from their land, also plays a massive role in displacing families and communities from their homes. It is estimated that tens of millions of climate refugees will be forced to leave their homes in coming decades as a result of climate change. As an increasing number of people are on the move globally, we need to make our communities more welcoming rather than building walls.
Taking kids away from their families and their culture is never right—not now in the US, not in the past or present in Canada, nor anywhere else in the world.
We are told by Indigenous elders that water is life. Separating children from their families is one side of the coin, and destroying the land, water, language and culture is the other. We must stand up against injustice and turn the tide, on all sides of the border.
If you want to take meaningful action to support Indigenous communities and land defenders, here are some suggestions:
- Send a letter calling on Trudeau to honour Indigenous rights and protect the Peace-Athabasca Delta by halting construction of Site C dam
- Support the Stakes in the Peace campaign to fundraise for First Nations’ legal challenges to Site C
- Support our Pull Together campaign raising money for Indigenous legal challenges to the Kinder Morgan tarsands pipeline and tankers
- Learn the history of the local First Nation and the territory you live on
- Learn the traditional name of your town/city and the names of notable landmarks (mountains, bays, etc.)
- Read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action and learn what your local government is doing to uphold these recommendations. Encourage them to do more, or do better.
- Read books by Indigenous authors and deepen your learning by signing up for a course or workshop. Find suggested resources and content in this edition of our Sierra Life e-newsletter from 2017.
- Attend events hosted by local nations and events in your community marking National Indigenous Peoples’ Day on June 21:
National Indigenous Peoples’ Day events
We also encourage you to participate in a World Refugee Day event in your community! Here are some events happening across BC:
Feature image by Dan Dickinson