Wendy Holm: Out of sight, out of mind? Connecting the dots between Site C and Wood Buffalo National Park

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      By Wendy Holm

      The Peace-Athabasca Delta (PAD) is in danger of dying. And the biggest coffin nail is being forged right here in B.C.: the Peace River’s Site C Dam.

      The PAD—formed by the confluence of the Peace and the Athabasca rivers—provides critical habitat for many species that, in turn, provide food for communities in the north that depend on fishing and hunting for their food security.  

      This delta is also the valuable and vulnerable heart of Wood Buffalo National Park, a national World Heritage and Ramsar site. With an area exceeding 4.5 million hectares of boreal plains in northern Alberta and the southern Northwest Territories, Wood Buffalo National Park is home to the worlds largest herd of free-ranging wood bison and is the breeding ground for the only wild, self-sustaining migratory flock of whooping cranes

      But it is also a delta under deadly threat. In 2014, the Mikisew Cree First Nation hired biologist David Schindler to document the deteriorating state of the PAD. Schindler’s damning report, Human-Caused Ecological Changes and Threats to the Peace Athabasca Delta and Wood Buffalo National Park, triggered the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) 2016 fact-finding mission to the region.

      So alarmed was UNESCO by what they found that they handed Canada a list of 17 conditions to save the park. One recommendation called for Canada to conduct a UN-approved social- and environmental-impact assessment of the Site C Dam on the Peace-Athabasca Delta and the Wood Buffalo National Park. 

      Canada has flat-out refused.

      Why should British Columbians care?  Because fully two-thirds of the drying up of the PAD is due to the two dams we have already built on B.C.'s stretch of the Peace River. We are already fully responsible for this. Imagine what that third dam will do.

      And there’s more. For communities dependent on hunting and fishing for their food security, the continued drying out of the PAD is devastating. Inuit, First Nations, and Métis adults across the north already experience five to six times higher levels of food insecurity than the average Canadian, according to a 2014 Health Canada report. A recent First Nations regional health survey from the Dene Nation in the Northwest Territories showed that 90 percent of the 824 respondents indicated that an adult in their household frequently either cut the size of their meals, skipped meals, were hungry but did not eat, or ate less than they felt they should due to a lack of money for food. Ottawa freely admits that Canada’s Nutrition North program has been an abject failure. 

      When you consider that the destruction of these crucial PAD and Wood Buffalo foodlands will be accomplished by flooding prime Peace Valley farmland on the doorstep of the North—land with the capacity to feed one million people a year, forever—the magnitude of this folly becomes horribly evident.    

      Canada must support all of UNESCO’s recommendations, including number four:

      “…Conduct, in line with the IUCN World Heritage Advice Note on Environmental Assessment, an environmental and social impact assessment of the Site C project and, if moved forward, any other hydropower projects potentially affecting the Outstanding Universal Value of the property…”

      A river, like a song, has a cadence. In the hands of Mother Nature, a river flows with the rhythm of spring snowmelts and freshets, summer lulls and autumn rains. Thanks to spring ice jams and logs from upstream, wetlands are replenished and new landforms created as the river forms its delta. 

      Further destruction of this cadence through the placement of another dam on the Peace River will result in the destruction of northern communities. 

      We in British Columbia need to understand that the hidden costs of the Site C Dam extend well beyond the boundaries of this province. We must stand with communities in the north to demand that the impact of Site C on the Peace-Athabasca Delta and Wood Buffalo National Park be documented and addressed. 

      You have until Monday night (December 10) to sign this Slave River Coalition-led Lead Now petition to tell Parks Canada that Ottawa’s refusal to implement UNESCO's recommendation number four is unacceptable.

      Wendy Holm is a self-described Canadian professional agrologist (retired), economist, columnist, speaker, and policy wonk.