As we go into the Christmas break, the big news is that the provincial government has announced the creation of the biggest public infrastructure project in British Columbia history: the Site C dam.
Before we go further, let me be clear: what I am about to say is not an argument for or against the building of this or any other project. It’s simply an observation about the narratives surrounding the decision to build it.
The government says the dam is a necessary investment to provide clean, reliable power for the province. Opponents, who include residents whose homes will be lost and First Nations whose traditional territory will be flooded, say the loss of land is too great and alternatives should be investigated.
In counter to these arguments, supporters of the project point to the importance of “vision” from leaders, and the “visionaries” of the past who took on similarly large projects. The case study in visionary leaders is W.A.C Bennett, the B.C. premier responsible for the damming of other rivers back in the mid-twentieth century. Writing in support of Site C, former MLA Kevin Falcon opens with a quote from the Lieutenant-Governor at the opening of the W.A.C. Bennet dam:
“It may be apparent to everyone that harnessing of the Peace River promises great benefits for the people of British Columbia, but this was not always so. There were some who expressed concern when the project was launched. Despite this criticism, one man stood above all others in his faith in the future of the province.”
There is a distinct sense of nostalgia in much of the talk around Bennett’s time: a time, presumably, when leaders got things done instead of having to wring their hands over opposition. Over in the Globe and Mail, Gary Mason characterizes this version of the past thusly:
“Building dams in B.C. used to be a relatively straight-forward procedure. Governments did not need to worry about constitutional challenges to their authority. Or spend years trying to broker deals that would make those affected by the project happy.
“It was an era that some recall fondly as the good old days.”
But this is only one version of history. The mid-twentieth century wasn’t the good old days for everyone. Yes, government could build major projects without court fights, but that’s because the 1940s and 50s was a time when the notion of First Nations rights were all but non-existent. It was a time when over 1,000 children were starved in residential schools for the sake of “science”.
So noticeably absent from the talk of Bennett’s visionary dams are things like the forced relocation of the Tsay Keh Dene First Nation, who lost their homes and way of life and were moved to an isolated reserve and only recently received any form of compensation.
Here’s the story of another dam built in the “good old days“:
“When the Kenney Dam opened in 1954, it turned the Nechako River into an enormous reservoir, flooding a significant part of the Dakelh territories. The Cheslatta people were displaced ‘with little or no warning, [they were] forced to flee the rising waters and watch[ed] as their community’s hunting grounds, trap lines, and burial sites disappear[ed].’
This is not the distant past. Remains from the burial ground still occasionally wash up in these waters, an ongoing reminder of the utter lack of respect and attention given to an entire community of people whose existence is an inconvenient footnote in the visionary, province-building narrative of the past.
Look, it’s complicated. I recognize that British Columbia as we know it may not exist without these projects, that we all use energy produced by these projects, and that we need energy to come from somewhere in the future. Some people say a new dam is necessary, others don’t. That’s not what this post is about.
My point is this: in having these discussions, it’s important to remember the past is not as clean as the simplified “grand vision” narrative would have you believe. It’s messy and uncomfortable. There were very real negative consequences for real people, and just as the energy from these dams is still flowing, so too is economic and social fallout for the people they displaced. The legacy cuts both ways. And we need to look at history holistically- the good and the bad- when using its example to make plans for the future.
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