Paddle for the Peace takes on new political urgency

Zoë Ducklow

Green leader Elizabeth May calls Site C ‘a monstrosity,’ says Trudeau must seek new advice on dam

Dipping a paddle in the Peace River, the red-orange canoe glides down the water. Hundreds of other boats float beside, behind and ahead towards Bear Flat, where BC Hydro is working to purchase farmland to realign Highway 29 in preparation for the Site C reservoir.

It’s cold and quiet, this peaceful river, but powerful currents boil from under the surface, rushing from the Rocky Mountains all the way east to northeast Alberta where it joins the Slave River.

“This day is to celebrate the Peace River. Lots of people talk about the Peace, but not a lot of people know about it,” said West Moberly Chief Roland Willson, addressing the crowd before sending off the boats at the confluence of the Halfway River.

“It’s been proven over and over that there is no need to destroy this valley to produce this energy. We are not against the creation of the energy, we’re against the unnecessary destruction when the alternatives are better.”

Hundreds came July 9 for the 11th annual Paddle for the Peace from as far away as Germany, India and all over Canada, joining the protest against BC Hydro’s Site C dam. Their reasons for opposing the project vary from its economic cost, violated indigenous rights and environmental damage, to food security and land rights.

As one participant said, “When someone asks me why I’m against Site C, I look them over to see if they’re a farmer type, a social rights type, an economic type, an environmental type—because no matter what thing they care about, there’s a relevant reason why Site C is a bad deal.”

Agricultural land value

Partway down the river, Esther Pedersen paddles by. She’s a landowner whose home up on the bluffs overlooking Site C will become unstable when the new reservoir floods the valley from Hudson Hope to Fort St. John—an 83 kilometer stretch of Class 1 agricultural land with a microclimate ideal for growing food.

Reports commissioned by BC Hydro calculate this area of land could feed one million people annually, in perpetuity. BC Hydro says the dam is needed to supply electricity for an expected population increase of one million in the next 20 years. Opponents, however, cite loss of agricultural land as a key reason why the energy produced is not worth the cost.

“Alluvial soils are the most magical of soils. If you were a vegetable, you would pray that your children would have a chance to grow in alluvial soils,” said agrologist Wendy Holm, standing on a soil rich farm next to the river.

“In British Columbia, we are vegetable deficient. We import 67 per cent of the vegetables that we consume from California, who are facing a long, unprecedented drought. The Peace River is much closer to Vancouver, and is much closer to northern communities (than California).”

“This is, in my opinion as an agrologist, one of the greatest transgressions of public policy I’ve ever seen,” said Holm.

On the water, Pedersen is chatting with Elizabeth May, leader of Canada’s Green Party, who’s in another canoe. May is opposes Site C, and came to support the opposition movement.

“It violates every single precept of sound policy making. It’s a monstrosity. It’s a decision that defies economic sense, ecological sense, and human rights,” she said.

Boons face bulldozers

After their trip down the river, the paddlers gathered on Ken and Arlene Boon’s farm at Bear Flat as they do every year. This year was more poignant than ever, however, because BC Hydro wants land sale agreements settled by Christmas so work can start realigning Highway 29 in 2017. But the Boons are not convinced the timeline makes sense.

Arlene and Ken Boon

“We have the very real scenario right now where ourselves and the other people in Bear Flat could get kicked out of our houses, our houses could get bulldozed, and then this project could stop,” Ken Boon said.

“If they stick to their plan—and they’re already behind—the highway wouldn’t be needed until 2024. So we’re challenging that timeline and calling on BC Hydro to wait until all the challenges to this project have been removed.”

Two court cases set to be heard in September regarding First Nations treaty rights could halt the project. Opponents say it’s dishonorable to clear cut the valley when there are legal challenges yet to be settled.

Federal government reviewing permits

The federal government has a number of permits still to issue for Site C, so opponents to the dam are focused on getting their message to the ministers involved and the prime minister. Several speakers called on people to write letters, call MPs and MLAs, and sign petitions repeatedly.

“This is our opportunity to make sure Justin Trudeau and the federal cabinet don’t hear the end of this until they get off the fence and stop the bloody dam,” said one speaker from the Sierra Club of B.C.

May said the federal cabinet needs to ask for new advice on the dam, because advice given to the previous Conservative government, which approved the project, is sealed.

“The decision made by Harper’s cabinet was made in defiance of the evidence, and in contempt of First Nations’ rights,” May said. “They can’t rely on anything the previous cabinet did, because it was an ideologically driven decision that ignored the evidence. They’ve promised us evidence-based decision making, science-based decision making, and a new approach of nation-to-nation relationship based on trust.”

May is confident that when Trudeau’s cabinet sees evidence of the dam’s impacts on treaty rights they will not issue the permits.

“I do not believe they will knowingly violate that (election campaign) promise. I happen to believe Prime Minister Trudeau is a very good person and a man of his word. He has to keep his promise.”

Addressing the crowd, May also delivered a rebuke to B.C. Premier Christy Clark.

“No way will you get your dam past the point of no return. No way will we ever surrender or give up or stop fighting for Ken and Arlene and the good people of this valley. You will not throw good people out of their homes by Christmas.

“As God as my witness, we will keep the Peace,” she said.

This article was originally published on June 13, 2016 in the Alaska Highway News.