Peace River to be diverted as West Moberly First Nations seeks to stop the Site C dam in court

Published by Brent Patterson on

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Photo: Treaty 8 Elder Jack Askoty stands on an old growth logged tree stump on the Site C construction site in January 2016. Photo by Yvonne Tupper.

The Peace River on Treaty 8 territory (in northern British Columbia) is expected to be diverted at some point between September 1 and October 1 to allow work crews to start building the kilometre-long, 60-metre high Site C hydroelectric dam.

Diverting the river will create a 500-metre stretch of dry riverbed, where construction on the mega-project can take place on dry ground.

Chief Roland Willson of the West Moberly First Nations says: “It’s just a continuing quagmire of ugliness going on down there. It’s devastating to watch.”

There has been ongoing opposition to the dam.

Around December 15, 2015, Treaty 8 land defenders and allies set up a camp at Rocky Mountain Fort on the south bank of the Peace River to protest the dam. But by February 29, 2016, the B.C. Supreme Court had granted an injunction to BC Hydro ordering the land defenders to be removed from the area.

At that time, land defender Helen Knott of the Prophet River First Nation stated: “We do not wish to be arrested. We wish to see Canada respect the rights of indigenous people in accordance with its international obligations.  We remain strong, united and firm in our opposition to this unnecessary project. We will do everything in our power to ensure Canada lives up to its commitments to indigenous peoples.”

By January 2018, the Prophet River First Nation and the West Moberly First Nations began civil actions in court alleging the dam violated the terms of Treaty 8 and that it would have a significant effect on their traditional way of life.

Then on August 6 of this year, the Prophet River First Nation settled out of court. Beverly Stager of the Prophet River First Nation said Site C has “painfully impacted” Treaty 8 nations and that this settlement “can’t undo the past”.

The Lawyer’s Daily has reported: “Tim Thielmann of Sage Legal, who represents both Prophet River and West Moberly First Nations, said the settlement is not an endorsement of the project [but rather an attempt to] see if they could negotiate an agreement to protect other areas in their territory to prevent the same thing from happening elsewhere.”

West Moberly’s civil action is set to go trial by March 2022 and is expected to last 6 months. The legal challenge seeks compensation or an order to shut down Site C and return the Peace River Valley to its natural state.

The diversion of the Peace River that is set to begin in coming weeks will continue until construction of the dam (now priced at $10.7 billion) is completed, which is expected to be in late 2023 or 2024.

If it becomes operational, the dam would flood 128 kilometres of the Peace River and its tributaries, destroying Indigenous burial sites, traditional hunting and fishing grounds and dozens of cultural and spiritual sites.

Aware of the damage to come to the territories, Chief Willson lamented several years ago: “The era of destroying rivers should be over.”

Peace Brigades International accompanies defenders at-risk for opposing hydroelectric dams in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. You can read about one such struggle, the Peaceful Resistance of Cahabón, a collective of 38 Maya Q’eqchi communities in Guatemala, here.

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