When the W.A.C. Bennett Dam was completed in the fall of 1967, a crowd gathered inside its cavernous generating station near Hudson's Hope in northeastern B.C. to honour the three men who made it happen: the B.C. premier whose name would be given to the dam; Gordon Shrum, co-chair of BC Hydro; and Pat O'Donnell, the construction manager.
Last week, Premier Christy Clark stood in the marble-lined Legislature library to announce her own legacy project – the Site C dam. Two women at her side will also have their names on this $8.8-billion project: Jessica McDonald, chief executive officer of BC Hydro, and Susan Yurkovich, who is leading the construction this time around.
The all-women cast is an obvious example of how things have changed, but some things remain the same. First Nations leaders whose communities fall under the shadow of these dam projects did not share the bunting-festooned VIP box with Mr. Bennett, nor did they take a front-row seat at Ms. Clark's event.
When Mr. Bennett gave approval to building the first dam on the Peace River, flooding 1,800 square kilometres of the Peace River valley, there was scant consideration of aboriginal communities whose homes, sacred places and livelihoods disappeared under the surface of the Williston Reservoir.
Ms. Clark, in her announcement, lauded Mr. Bennett for his vision, which created generations of cheap, clean hydroelectric power that helped develop British Columbia. But there is a different legacy that the First Nations see – fish that they cannot safely eat because of toxins in the water, the disappearance of caribou herds, family graves submerged in the depths.
BC Hydro is now talking with 10 First Nation groups, hoping to win support for Site C. After seven years of talks, not a single agreement has been reached. The disregard the Crown corporation showed in the past has not been forgiven. "Yes, there is a long history between BC Hydro and those First Nation communities," Ms. McDonald acknowledged in a recent interview.
But Ms. McDonald says social expectations are different now, and the legal landscape has changed too. For a start, in 1967, there was no constitutional recognition of aboriginal rights.
"It's a completely different process with a very different objective than would have been on anyone's mind decades ago," Ms. McDonald said. "There is an obligation to look for ways to mitigate and avoid those impacts [on aboriginal communities] and where you are left with some that can't be mitigated, to try to work with First Nations about benefits that can be returned to communities."
Construction of the Clark dam is being delayed until next summer to allow for still more time to negotiate with First Nations. After seven years of fruitless consultations, it seems doubtful that a deal is in reach in the next few months. Ms. McDonald remains hopeful that she can overcome generations of opposition to damming the Peace River.
A string of legal challenges has already been filed to block construction of the dam, and First Nations believe their hand is bolstered by a landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision last June that granted aboriginal title to the Tsilhqot'in Nation. The court, in its ruling, found government incursions on aboriginal title must be justified on the basis of a "compelling and substantial public interest."
The Treaty 8 Tribal Association wants to bring to court the findings of the Site C environmental review panel, which concluded earlier this year that building the dam would cause significant, adverse effects for the region's First Nations and that BC Hydro had not demonstrated the need for the dam on the timetable it set out.
If Site C isn't really needed, they will argue, how can the government justify a clear infringement?
Mr. Bennett built his dam at a time when he was certain he could do as he wished with the Peace River. Today, that certainty is elusive.
The government maintains that the Tsilhqot'in aboriginal title decision does not matter here because Site C involves aboriginal communities that already have a treaty.
If the courts disagree and they do hear the Treaty 8 case, however, this could be the first test of what the Tsilhqot'in ruling means for the future of development in B.C.