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First Nation documentary examines impacts of Williston reservoir

‘The Scattering of Man’ tells story of the Tsay Key Dene after the building of the W.A.C Bennett Dam in the 1960s
Dust mitigation in the Ospika, Tsay Keh Dene territory. Massive dunes line the shores of Tsay Keh Dene territory, often kicking up into large dust storms.

For director Luke Gleeson, telling the story of his Tsay Keh Dene community and the impacts of the W.A.C Bennett Dam is of the utmost importance.

His new documentary, Dene Yi'injetl - The Scattering of Man, is the telling of a history very few know about, partly due to the remote location of the First Nation in Northern B.C., and finally being ready to tell their story. The film first premiered last November, has been showing at several film festivals, and will screen this Friday night in Dawson Creek.

“We’ve been happy with the reception, we’ve been happy with the festivals that have taken us on. They’ve been really supportive of the film," Gleeson says. "I’m just trying to get my people’s story out to as many people as possible."

“That was sort of the goal, people are ready to tell their stories.”  

No outside voices are included in the documentary; it focuses solely on the Tsay Keh Dene people who witnessed the destruction and their displacement caused by the dam.

The BC Hydro megaproject took seven years to build and was completed in 1968, flooding the the upper reaches of the Peace River near Hudson's Hope to create the massive Williston Lake reservoir. 

Gleeson says his community has been in peril since the day the dam was created, facing environmental, cultural, and social repercussions. 

“We’re trying to tell this in a way that shows strength and dignity for the people who were involved, but at the same time being aware that for people who haven’t heard this story, it’s really difficult if you’re going to hit them up with every detail,” says Gleeson.  

“It was a confusing process for a lot people. There wasn’t a lot of information for a lot of people and, the further you go up into the territories, there wasn’t a whole bunch of consultation or understanding of what was coming and what was happening.

"A lot of those things were a shock for people, coming home and their house was burnt.” 

Debris and dust storms from the dam and its flooding are just two of the issues faced by Tsay Keh Dene, in addition to the loss of traditional hunting, trapping and fishing areas, gathering sites, and burial grounds. 

“I wrote a storyboard and the scope of the film was too big, so I spent a lot of time honing it in. Being from Tsay Keh Dene, I’m aware of the story, but trying to put it into a 75-minute film is a completely different monster,” says Gleeson.  

He describes the landscape and environment as a character in the documentary, with a voice just as important as the people.  He's worked as an environmental consultant for many years, before founding Mesilinka Films for his directorial debut. 

“It is a living being regardless of how you connect to it in terms of identity. You can say it’s your ancestors, or you can look at it more scientifically and look at the different ecosystems, wildlife, and watersheds. It all breathes life,” he says.  

Gleeson says he’s had a chance to visit the end of the reservoir and was taken aback by how little acknowledgement there’s been by BC Hydro over its impacts – limiting it to a small piece of writing on a wall at the W.A.C Bennett Dam visitor centre.  

Tsay Keh Dene had been approached by BC Hydro to make a short video on the impacts but declined.  

“The wall we ended up getting was pretty tiny. We put together a poster for our wall, we wanted to intentionally leave it blank with a poster that showed our territory and outlines showing where houses were burnt, where people were flooded out of, where people were forcibly relocated, and information related to the areas that were lost,” says Gleeson.  

Gleeson says the documentary was fully funded by the Tsay Keh Dene Nation and approved by its leadership.

“It took us six years to get here and COVID hit, which really slowed us down editing. But in hindsight, it might have been good thing; sort of slowed down our process a little bit,” said Gleeson. “From the initial shoot to when we finished the film was just under six years.”  

Dene Yi'injetl - The Scattering of Man will screen Friday at 7 p.m. at KPAC, followed by a question and answer session.

Tom Summer, Alaska Highway News, Local Journalism Initiative.  

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