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As a writer who learns from and focuses on what water has to teach us, I have been following rivers and considering how to build relations grounded in loving and respecting water. I believe this is crucial for a shared, peaceful future.
Each July for the past five years, I have made a pilgrimage to a sacred site: the Peace Valley in Treaty 8 territory, the ancestral lands of the Dunne-za and Cree people. The first year there, in 2015, I did not realize what this journey would become. I had no idea that I would arrive in the Peace Region just as BC Hydro started clearcutting trees that house eagles’ nests to make way for the Site C dam.
It was a coincidence that I happened to be there when a river ceremony was called on what the Dunne-za call the walking hills of the Peace Valley. Overlooking the future site of the dam, I joined a group of Dunne-za and Cree elders, kids, and people of the land drumming and singing for the river in the face of the violence that was being inflicted upon it.
That fateful day, I met so many people who love that land, that river. That love is what brings me back year after year, despite the grief and anguish of seeing the devastating harm colonial forces are inflicting on the Peace River.
The valley has changed so much since I was last here a year ago. The first shock was to see how a channel of the Peace River that flowed downstream from Hudson’s Hope had been choked off with dirt berms so that this stretch of the river could be turned into a road.
The scale of destruction is arrogant insanity. If people could experience these changes the way local bears, eagles, elk and fish have, they would question the greenwashing of the Site C dam and understand how mega dams are not clean energy.
Seeing the islands in the river, the Jewels of the Peace, that have been logged so far is heartbreaking. Huge piles of dead trees are strewn throughout the valley. I make my way through high grass, mulch, and thistles in order to show the scale of one slash pile that will be burned at some point. Why is so much forest being destroyed and wastefully burned? What kind of climate response is this?
There are hundreds of these enormous piles throughout the valley. Much of this was helicopter-logged at great expense. Experienced locals estimate the cost at roughly $4,000 an hour to burn this wood for no purpose but to destroy it and release its carbon into the atmosphere before the dam floods the valley. BC Hydro is required to submit quarterly reports to the BC Utilities Commission, but is late with not just one, but two, such reports, in which we can expect to hear of high cost overruns due to such wasteful practices.
One of the ancient wetlands, rare tufa seeps, near the banks of the Peace River, was logged on the Labour Day holiday weekend last summer, along with another tufa seep destroyed last summer, immeasurable losses that are hard to bear.
There remain some islands that have not been logged yet, which are critical calving grounds for deer, elk, moose and more. These islands are refuges for endangered wildlife, natural capital and Indigenous cultural heritage that none of us can afford to lose.
"I had no idea that I would arrive in the Peace Region just as BC Hydro started clearcutting trees that house eagles’ nests to make way for the Site C dam."
BC Hydro says it has monitoring plans, but these will not prevent destruction nor magically create refuges in a region that is under intense pressure from fracking, resource extraction, and more. There is nowhere for the animals to go but towards the slow violence of mass extinction. And we will go there with them if the dam is built, eliminating a crucial wildlife corridor that needs to be expanded.
It's agonizing to see this destruction occurring despite the best efforts of the West Moberly First Nations to prevent the clearcuts of old growth forests. At great expense, they and the Prophet River First Nation sought an injunction in 2018, which was denied. When the courts weigh “irreparable harm” in deciding whether to grant injunctions, why do they value corporate profit more than intergenerational health and survival?
Now the West Moberly First Nations are set for another court case, with a hearing scheduled by 2023, while the clearcutting and burning of forests that everyone needs continues in massively funded systemic violence that hurts not only those up north, but those of us who live down south as well.
We are in a climate crisis. Why is B.C. logging old growth forest anywhere? Old growth forests are our first line of defence, and they are being unconscionably destroyed.
The expropriation of people’s homes along the river is underway, and will dispossess and threaten many more to come — 97 properties in Hudson’s Hope alone, and more throughout the valley. That river channel that is being turned into one of the most expensive roads ever built in B.C.? Its banks were the home of Caroline Beam and her family.
Yet, I still have hope that the river will have the final say, whether that happens in my lifetime or beyond. I feel the power and the spirit of the river each time I visit the Peace. It is larger than these monuments to colonial power. The land has been speaking through landslides in 2018 and again this year, through heavy rains, through larger natural forces that operate on their own time. On July 23, there was another evacuation order issued due to a landslide near the dam.
The public vantage point for the Site C dam is fenced off with barbed wire, which prevents public access to the mega dam that has received some of the largest fines for unsafe work in this province.
To get a closer view of the destruction, we go to Protesters’ Point, which has a shack overlooking where the Rocky Mountain Fort Camp’s stewards of the land held off BC Hydro’s attack for two months in the freezing cold winter of 2015-16. A number of people who supported the camp still face a SLAPP suit from BC Hydro, a corporate bullying tactic that has not been changed by incoming or outgoing governments.
Standing above the dam site, we see the debris boom that has been put into place by BC Hydro, what local farmer, Esther Pederson, scathingly calls the “g-string.” Esther is one of the people named in the SLAPP suit, whose home overlooks the dam site and who would be displaced by it.
This debris boom obstruction is a key step in BC Hydro’s permanent closure of the Peace River for boating in this area. In past years when I’ve come to this point, I’ve seen eagles soaring above. This year, it is ravens I see riding the powerful wind, harbingers perhaps of what is to come.
Dunne-za seers or dreamers have foretold that if the dam is built, it will fail. But this warning has gone unheeded. I do believe the land will have the last word, on its own time.
The resilience of the land has so much to teach us. As Anishinaabe writer Leanne Simpson says, if one considers the land as one’s mother or relation, one does not abandon or give up on them just because they are being abused. If anything, we need to care more for the land. And the successful work of West Moberly First Nations and Saulteau First Nation on caribou recovery and Indigenous plants are the kinds of projects we need for a livable future.
Turning the living Peace Valley into a stagnant battery for B.C. (to export electricity at lower rates than it cost to generate that power) is a clear example of both environmental racism and intersectional, systemic violence. It is like flooding the Great Pyramid of Giza or the Sistine Chapel deliberately.
This mega dam ultimately prevents Dunne-za and Cree peoples from being on their ancestral lands, generation after generation. Indigenous people’s sacred sites and homelands are turned into a sacrifice zone. In this case, one leaching methane and methyl mercury, making fish uneatable and moving up the food chain to impoverish the biodiversity that all communities are responsible for protecting. The scale of clearcutting is abhorrent, but the land also teaches me how quickly it can and will grow back if it is not flooded.
We visit Chuu Ehle, also known as Watson Slough, a world-renowned refuge for endangered birds that would be submerged by the Site C dam. In its vicinity is a spring that flows generously and abundantly that we can drink from. The water is delicious and invigorating.
Not only will the dam turn such springs and this stretch of the Peace River into a stagnant, mercury-laden 83-kilometre reservoir, but the Moberly and Halfway rivers will also be backed up, so that more than 100 kilometres of waterways would be choked by the Site C dam.
The massive scale of this destruction in the Peace Valley tips us on a trajectory towards mass extinction. As a whole, it constitutes irreparable harm not only to the Dunne-za and Cree people of Treaty 8, but arguably to everyone on this Earth who is affected by accelerating climate instability.
If we can learn to flatten the curve for the pandemic, can we also learn to flatten the curve for mass extinction? Scientists have suggested that destroying nature only increases the probability of future pandemics. It is late, but I pray that it is not too late for us to learn how to respect the land and water that hold our future.