I dip my paddle into the Peace River and we are off.
The river surprises me with its strength, swiftly conveying my daughter and me downstream. We bob in the water with hundreds of others: families with small children wedged into Clipper canoes, and a rainbow of kayaks.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, of the B.C. Union of Indian Chiefs, floats downstream in a green canoe. There are even people in wetsuits paddling on surfboards, slick and seal-like.
Aboriginal drummers send us off ceremoniously, a steady background heartbeat for the eighth annual Paddle for the Peace. This year, the paddle takes on new urgency.
The Peace River, the largest waterway in the Mackenzie river system, has recently been declared B.C.’s Most Endangered River by the B.C. Outdoor Recreation Council.
At the launch site, Chief Roland Willson of West Moberly First Nations has a message for paddlers: “This is a wilderness-type area. We’re on the river. If something happens with anybody, please, we’re all a big family, stop and take care of each other.”
On this overcast Saturday in mid-July, close to 500 people of all ages, from faraway places and different backgrounds, gather with one single determined purpose: to save B.C.’s Peace River Valley and stop the proposed Site C dam.
Site C, now in the environmental assessment process, would cost B.C. taxpayers at least $8 billion, at a time when huge cost overruns on other BC Hydro projects are making headlines.
Site C would destroy 83 kilometres of picturesque valley bottoms in the Peace, Halfway, and Moberly Rivers, to create electricity that is not needed or slated for domestic consumption.
Our paddle takes us past a green and yellow patchwork quilt of some of B.C.’s best farmland, all of it scheduled for the Site C wrecking ball.
Flooding from the proposed dam would wipe out 52 square kilometres of agricultural land— an area the size of 12 Stanley Parks— including B.C.’s only Class 1 farmland north of Quesnel.
At least 78 First Nations cultural and spiritual sites and burial grounds would be obliterated. Vital wildlife habitat for grizzly bears and 19 other at-risk species would vanish, threatening the continent’s longest remaining wildlife corridor.
It’s difficult for me to fathom how we would allow such wild beauty and B.C. heritage to disappear under a wall of water—potentially just to power one proposed Liquefied Natural Gas plant. Local First Nations recount stories from their ancestors about hunting woolly mammoth in this valley. The Hudson’s Hope museum just upstream has woolly mammoth teeth and locally discovered dinosaur footprints and bones, and Peace farmers still find sea fossils and shiny arrowheads when they plant their fields.
One of B.C. premier Christy Clark’s favourite slogans is “Families First”, a phrase that takes on new meaning for me during my four-day stay in the Peace.
I meet Caroline and Derek Beam, and their three children, all under the age of 10. The Beams are one of many families in the Peace Valley who will lose their home and land if Site C goes ahead. B.C. Hydro has tried to buy their riverside property, but the Beams aren’t selling.
“They want to buy us out,” explains Caroline, a wildlife biologist, when I stop by her bright, two-storey home.
Caroline’s great-grandparents lost their land and home when the W.A.C. Bennett dam was built. Her husband is the school principal in Hudson’s Hope, a town that will lose its water source, some of its land, and its striking views of the Peace River when a 12-to 14-metre high berm is constructed to prevent erosion from Site C flooding.
“If we don’t agree, then they will expropriate our land and we’ll get our walking papers,” says Caroline. “When they expropriate, they set the amount they think you are worth. Our family has been fighting these dams for generations. My great-grandparents had to watch their home burn when the W.A.C. Bennett dam was built.”
The Site A dam on the Peace River was named after former B.C premier William Andrew Cecil Bennett, whose memory Clark invoked when she ran in the July 10 Kelowna by-election. Built in the '60s, it is one of the world’s largest earthen dams.
The imposing reservoir the W.A.C. Bennett dam created, flooding Caroline’s great-grandparent’s pioneer ranch and First Nations’ traditional territory, was named after Ray Williston, Bennett’s Minister of Lands and Forests.
A second, much smaller—or Site B— Peace Canyon dam was constructed a decade later, over the strong objections of Peace Valley residents. A few years before it opened, scientifically significant dinosaur tracks and bones were discovered in the canyon, including the footprints of baby hadrosaurs, or duck-billed dinosaurs. Paleontologists only had time to investigate four miles of the 17-mile long canyon before any other potential finds vanished under the rising water.
Ken and Arlene Boon live in a house that Arlene’s grandfather built, on a hilltop farm that will be expropriated if Site C goes ahead. The Boons have put up a “Flood Reserve” sign near the top of their driveway to indicate just how far the water would rise. “B.C. Hydro’s plan is to flood our property and destroy it,” says Arlene Boon. “We don’t know what lies ahead for us if this project goes ahead.”
The Boons have a large, lush garden they share with two other families, growing everything from cantaloupes and grapes to tomatoes and corn. It’s Class 1 farmland, the best there is in B.C. Arlene hands us juicy peas peeled from the vines and brings the first sweet carrots of the season to taste. She takes me to the spot, just metres behind the garden, where Highway 29 would be rebuilt to accommodate Site C.
“Even if the highway wasn’t going through here, we live on the banks of Cache Creek and the banks will be eroded away if the dam is built, so we can’t stay here.”
Site C, to be located just south of Fort St. John, was rejected twice in the 1980s. It was deemed too costly— and too risky in the event of a dam breach.
One B.C. Hydro report says, “Site C would….fall into the ‘High’ or ‘Very High’ consequence category as defined by the Canadian Dam Association because of the potential damage downstream in the event of a dam breach and the economic loss as a result of dam failure.”
Nobody seems to know if the risk is even higher now in light of climate change, with increasingly extreme weather and flooding events such as those seen recently in nearby Alberta.
As I paddle down the Peace, I reflect that something significant is happening in B.C.’s northeast, where the landscape has already been fractured by speedy industrial development like the controversial practice of fracking for natural gas. First Nations families and ranching families and farming families are working together to stop Site C: fighting for their land and homes.
“There are other ways to generate power that don’t include flooding this valley,” Chief Roland Willson tells the paddlers. “No-one in the world right now is planning dams. They’re taking them down.”
We paddle for almost two hours, until we spot white teepees and flags flying on the Boon’s lower farm fields, indicating our take-out spot. We’ve only paddled a fraction of the 83 kilometres that will be flooded if Site C proceeds—a distance that is almost all the way from downtown Victoria to the Swartz Bay ferry terminal in Sidney, and back to downtown, and then back to the terminal again.
Squelching through the river bank mud, we haul our canoe up and join a throng of people at a barbecue hosted by the Halfway River First Nation on the Boons’ farm.
Arlene Boon remembers her grandfather’s reaction when B.C. Hydro told him decades ago that he’d have to leave his farm to make way for Site C. “He chased the Hydro people off his property and said he wasn’t selling.”
“I look out every day and see the same view that my grandpa saw when he was here,” she says. “That sort of thing is priceless.”