“These lands are who we are”

By Alex Neve

To be here – to see, listen, learn and feel this place – the enormity of what is at stake with the construction of the Site C Dam and why it is so crucial that it be stopped is everywhere.

It shines through in the Valley’s beauty; serene and majestic at the same time.  My first views of the Peace River were from lookouts offering sweeping views of a magnificent valley painted with more shades of green than I knew existed, always with the curving ribbon of water flowing through.  Each panorama was unbelievably more breathtaking than the last; topped by an early morning viewing that offered a low-hanging bank of mist that hugged the curves of the valley in ways that felt both mystic and mysterious.  

The Peace River

It certainly rests in the land.  First Nations leaders, elders, activists and community members shared stories going back generations and beyond of the land’s bounty and spiritual force, and the ways in which land and water are at the very centre of tradition and livelihoods.  As one elder told me, “these waters have always flowed through our people and these lands are who we are.”

It lies in the web of intricate relationships between land and life, water and land, land and sky; be it bull trout in the river, yellow rails and western toads in the wetlands, trumpeter swans who use the valley’s skies as a migratory highway, fishers along the forest floor, eagles soaring high over the river and its banks, and moose and elk who cross the Peace regularly to benefit from the very different ecosystems on the river’s two sides.

It comes through the layers of history of towns and communities along the river’s banks.  Farming families have been here for generations, with new generations continuing that history; for whom the valley has been and continues to be both home and a way of life. 

Finally it flows through the water itself, the very force that Site C seeks to tame.  I came to the Valley on this occasion, my first time here, to take part in the 12th annual Paddle for the Peace, an event that is celebratory, defiant and blissfully calm all in one.  To be in a canoe – steering, paddling and drifting around the bends and through the straightaways of just one stretch of this river – is the very essence of why so many have come together to defend the Peace and #StopSiteC.  It is to hear the rhythms of the water’s flow. It is to feel the cold touch of the water.  It is to be pulled along by the river’s current.

And then I saw and heard what is being wrought by the destruction already underway, as trees are cleared, land leveled, bridges built, highways rerouted and, ultimately, a 60 metre high dam spans and backs up the flow of this river of life.   

I truly was not prepared for the ugliness and brutality of the construction site, where the work and the noise of digging, excavating and moving rock and dirt continues around the clock.  I felt tears well up for what has already been ravaged and lost; and for so much more that hangs in the balance.

Construction of the Site C Dam in the Peace River Valley

To be here is to truly feel and understand that this is a struggle that brings so many important dimensions of justice and sustainability together.  Most certainly it is about nature and the environment.  It is also, with a doubt, fundamentally about human rights.  It is about the rights of the Valley’s First Nations peoples; their rights enshrined in Treaties, guaranteed in the Constitution and protected under international law. It is about the rights of farmers and landowners to their homes and to a legal process that ensures those homes will only be taken from them fairly and for the most exceptional situations of necessity.

And that is why it is so important that Amnesty International is aligned with First Nations, standing alongside farming families and finding common cause with environmentalists in the Peace River. Together, this is a shared struggle for human rights.

Sadly, Site C has proven to be a deeply disappointing indication of the limits of Prime Minister Trudeau’s promise of a new relationship with Indigenous peoples in Canada, grounded in full embrace of the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and committed to a vision of reconciliation. Issuing the permits needed to allow construction to proceed – despite widespread First Nations concern and opposition – does not accord with the Declaration.  And it most certainly does not sound like reconciliation when the federal government stands up in Court to say that construction should still go ahead even though the entire decision-making process has ignored the vital question of whether doing so would violate the Treaty relationship with the First Nations involved.

Famously, BC’s Premier Christy Clark, now in her final week of holding office, once quipped that she was determined to push construction of the Site C Dam “past the point of no return.” It has gone far, but as her government prepares to hand power over to a new NDP/Green Party coalition government, it is very much the case that it did not reach that point of no return.

And in the short term all eyes look to the incoming John Horgan British Columbia provincial government to act; and to act swiftly.  He literally understands what is at “stake.” On the grounds of the Boon family farm, a field of yellow stakes, inspired by the stakes used by BC Hydro to mark off areas for clearing and flooding, have become a powerful symbol of solidarity. The Boon Farm stakes bear the names of local activists, supporters across the country, First Nations elders, national Indigenous leaders such as Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde, and a number of federal and provincial politicians, all adding their support to the call to #StopSiteC. 

Premier-Designate John Horgan’s stake on the Boon Family Farm

Amidst the sea of yellow, one stake has taken on vital importance: John Horgan, MLA. It is now soon-to-be Premier Horgan’s opportunity to live up to what he has promised with his stake.  As a step in that direction he has signalled that he will ask the BC Utilities Commission to carry out a review.  He says that the frame for that review will be Site C’s economic viability. The people of the Peace Valley and throughout British Columbia deserve clear and honest answers to the question of whether or not Site C even makes sense as a way to fulfill its stated purpose of increasing the province’s energy production. Ultimately, however, the final decision about the future of the Peace Valley must be approached with a broader understanding of costs and benefits that includes the critical, irreplaceable value of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, upholding human rights and protecting the environment.

Meanwhile, our campaigning will continue; the importance of that was so clear during this visit. Some of the most powerful moments occurred along the banks of the Peace River, sharing with leaders, elders, activists, politicians and the public examples of the thousands and thousands of cards, letters and drawings sent from across Canada and 179 countries around the world, offering solidarity and support in the struggle.  People teared up and were speechless to know that so many people, in every corner of the planet, were aware that what is happening in the Valley is fundamentally about human rights.

We cannot relent. Now more than ever, as hope grows. Join us as we work to #StopSiteC.

Chief Roland Willson of the West Moberly First Nations, and Alex Neve

Learn More:

Threat of unnecessary destruction of Peace River Valley farms a clear violation of Canada’s international human rights commitments

BC Has Ignored the Rights of Peace River Valley’s People for Too Long (The Tyee)

Alex Neve is the Secretary General at Amnesty International Canada. Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexNeveAmnesty