Mythic dam battle at Site C is a showdown between “progress” and those who would preserve the valley.
FOUR-YEAR-OLD CALEB helped pull late September corn stalks at Ken and Arlene Boon’s farm, uncovering the pumpkins he’d eventually choose among for Halloween. There on a bank of the Peace River, this boy with blue glasses and dirty hands is the fifth generation to harvest in this garden, likely unaware that he may be the last, as the new highway for Site C will run through this part of his grandparents’ expropriated land. Nearby at Tluuge sus (Bear Flat), First Nations families have gathered for thousands of years—long before the Boons arrived. Cultural camps allow the sharing of ancestral knowledge and help maintain a spiritual connection to the land…for now. Site C construction will claim it, too. Farther out, downstream in the river itself, is what locals call Eagle Island. Named for its nests, every tree there has already been cut down.
These aren’t scenes you’ll find in government reports, industry-commissioned studies, or mainstream media accounts about the now-greenlit hydro megaproject taking shape in northeastern BC. Rather, they are some of the intimate stories told in award-winning journalist Sarah Cox’s new book Breaching the Peace: The Site C Dam and a Valley’s Stand Against Big Hydro (UBC Press, May 2018). Through in-person visits, detailed interviews, and dogged research, Cox takes us to meet the place, its people, and its rare and little-studied ecosystems—all in peril. She reminds us that for local First Nations, farmers, and hundreds of species, the Peace River Valley is not a hydro opportunity; it’s home.
Billed as climate-friendly clean energy to meet future demand, the Site C dam was first proposed in the 1950s and has been a topic of hot debate, and resistance, for decades. Designed to produce 1100 megawatts on some of the province’s best agricultural land, Site C would affect 34 farms, the traditional territories of the Treaty 8 First Nations, 450 known archaeological sites, 900 areas of “paleontological sensitivity,” and more than 100 species at risk by flooding 128 kilometres of the Peace River Valley and its tributary valleys. As Cox encourages us to imagine, that’s the area between Victoria and Nanaimo under up to 15 storeys of water. The zone widens when you include the stability impact line and the wave impact line (where reservoir waves caused by landslides would reach). Oh, and there’s the new highway. It’s all going to cost us $10.7 billion, as of the January 2018 estimate.
That’s a lot of numbers, and I often lament that “number” contains the word “numb.” While Cox, with a saint’s patience, sifts through the tens of thousands of pages of environmental impact assessments to tell us, for instance, that “fourteen at-risk butterfly species will also be impacted by the project, including the Old World swallowtail and Aphrodite fritillary,” she clearly knows from her own experience that it takes more than data to help people understand what’s at stake and what’s been happening in the now bittersweetly named Peace.
Like most British Columbians, Cox had never been to the Peace region. That changed in 2013 while working for Sierra Club BC. Being there, her expectations of “just another pretty BC valley” were blown open, and she describes what she instead encountered: “something of a biological curiosity…a northern Garden of Eden.” After that personal contact, her ideas about conservation shifted, looking at nature to include “the preservation of other values as well: traditional way of life, human history, the smaller green spaces that connect protected areas for wildlife, how everything fits together.” From that, the spark was lit. “I remember the end of a conversation with a friend from the Peace,” she tells me, tucked into a quiet upstairs nook at Nourish Cafe. “I said, ‘I wish there was something else I could do.’ I literally woke up the next morning with the idea for the book.”
Personal contact is truly at the heart of Breaching the Peace. We hear the voices of expropriated landowners, of First Nations Chiefs and activists, even of birds like the endangered yellow rail, or the slow drip from the delicate geology of tufa seeps. Cox’s hands-on approach produces an ever-surprising series of “who knew?” moments: in the Peace you can grow everything from artichokes to watermelon; you can find 11,000-year-old taiga vole bones on the same land as prickly pear cactus growing farther north than Moscow; BC doesn’t have stand-alone legislation to protect endangered species; and methylmercury from flooded forest and agricultural land means Chief Roland Willson of West Moberly First Nations must already lament, “Nowadays what I get to do is to teach my son how to throw contaminated fish back into the river.”
“I was surprised all the way along,” Cox tells me, “by the extent of the damage—the damage to First Nations communities and rights and title, the damage to the environment, the damage to farmland.” And she’s not easy to shock. With an MA in political science, a freelance journalism career (earning a Vancouver Press Club Award, a BC Journalism Award, and two Western Magazine Awards), and a background with science-based conservation organizations, Cox has more recently been the legislative reporter for DeSmog Canada, focusing on energy and environmental issues. Site C wraps all of Cox’s interests into one big, unruly ball which she deftly untangles.
But Cox doesn’t just gather and chronicle information. The beauty of her book is that it allows us to stand in closer, deeper relation to this threatened place and its determined people. And we should. Its loss is rationalized as being for our collective gain, so there’s a responsibility to know what is being sacrificed for our supposed good. You can’t fight for—or mourn—what you didn’t even know existed.
The public also can’t stand up against an invisible process; that’s the other side of her story. Cox wanted people to see exactly what expropriation in BC looks like, and how BC Hydro quietly bought up land in the Peace, spending millions, all through the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and early 2000s until the BC Liberals made good on their intention to push Site C past the point of no return, despite previous rejections. She wants people to see the tactics employed—not by a foreign-owned corporation, but by their own Crown corporation —in an intimidating BC Hydro civil suit against First Nations protesters in order to discourage potential future involvement (a suit, Cox notes, that’s still open). Quite simply, she says: “The story of what’s going on up there needs to get out.”
So while BC Hydro and the Canadian Hydropower Association wouldn’t speak to her, she ducked underneath and behind official lines to gather evidence through one-on-one talks, digging through stashes of letters and clippings, conferring with scientists, making FOI requests, excavating unsorted museum archives, hiking out on the land, visiting an international hydro conference, and meeting with alternative energy producers.
She also considers the global context of hydro megaprojects dating back to the 1920s and through to cautionary contemporary examples of Muskrat Falls, Newfoundland, and the Keeyask Dam in Manitoba. Big dams once stood as symbols of progress, independence, and ingenuity, but later represented corruption and arrogance, as environmental and human costs became too great to defend… until now. She writes: “One project that was dusted off and polished with a climate-friendly cloth was Site C. It joined big hydro dams around the world…as a phoenix rising from the ashes.” The climate has changed indeed.
While Cox’s prose is controlled, deliberate, shot through with wonder, deep respect, and empathy, she injects a sense of the mythic, conveying the enormity of the larger principles at play—and also at risk. Despite NDP Premier John Horgan’s giving the go-ahead in December, Cox doesn’t believe the fight is quite over. With two First Nations court cases and major geotechnical issues (she says they still haven’t found bedrock), she believes Site C’s fire may still go out. “The public turning against the project could also stop it,” she says. “I think most people still don’t know.” With Breaching the Peace, we’ll all know a lot more.
Writer and editor Amy Reiswig continues to believe that our greatest natural resource is one another—to listen, ask questions, find solutions, and stand in support.