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Mapping out concerns

Site C Public Hearings: Day 7

The Dane-zaa have a map, which they call a 'dreamer's map,' more than 100 years old and made from moosehide. It predicts the future of their people, who've called the Peace River valley home for 10,000 years.

The map is sacred, and not to be photographed, but on Monday, the Treaty 8 Tribal Association carefully unrolled it and put it on display for an environmental review panel undertaking public hearings on BC Hydro's controversial Site C dam proposal.

"The map talks about the destruction of the land, the destruction of the animals and how it's going to affect our people," Treaty 8 Tribal Chief Liz Logan said. "There are many predictions on that map that are starting to come true."

The map framed a day of much opposition to Site C during hearings in the West Moberly First Nation, whose members say the cumulative impacts of decades of Hydro and industrial development threaten the preservation of some 74,000 square miles of territory they claimed as their own long before the arrival of European explorers and the existence of BC Hydro.

"West Moberly is not opposed to development - what we're opposed to is unnecessary impacts," West Moberly Chief Roland Willson prefaced in his opening presentation to the panel. "One of the big things we're opposed to is the flooding of this valley. We see no need for this."

West Moberly is one of four Treaty 8 member nations that refuse to sign agreements with Hydro over Site C, which if approved would create an 83-kilometre reservoir and flood more than 5,500 hectares of farm and forest lands along the Peace River extending from Fort St. John to Hudson's Hope. It would be the third dam on the river, generating 5,100 gigawatts of energy per year and adding to the W.A.C. Bennett and Peace Canyon dams built on the river just outside Hudson's Hope in the 1960s and 70s.

But the impacts of those dams, and the rush to develop and sell off the region's supply of coal, timber and shale gas, has led to an accumulation of infringement on First Nation treaty rights and the "forced interference" on local aboriginals to carry on a peaceful way of life, Willson said.

In a half-hour presentation, he soberly laid out the rising levels of mercury found in local fish stocks created by W.A.C. Bennett's Williston Reservoir, pesticide use along Hydro transmission corridors and oil and gas well sites, and the dwindling populations of moose and caribou that West Moberly has relied on for sustenance.

Right now, the community is trying desperately to protect the Peace-Moberly Tract, a swath of land south of the Peace River close to the community dotted with hunters' and trappers' cabins.

Much of the tract will be bisected by two new 500-kilovolt transmission lines needed for the Site C project, and furthermore it will be one of many sources of aggregate material needed to fill the 60-metre-high earthen dam.

Willson talked about the "rinsing effect" seen on edges of the Williston reservoir, the unpredictable nature of rising water levels caused by operation of the dam intensifying landslides of the region's silt-base soil and whipping up dust storms when a strong gust of wind blows through.

Flooding the Peace River puts the valley at those same risks, Willson said, and will flood out important islands along the river that are important refuges for wildlife to calve and winter.

"This project is being touted as clean and green," Chief Willson said. "We argue it's neither one of those."

Hydro has acknowledged the wide range of impacts on West Moberly's ability to exercise their treaty rights to hunt, fish and trap in the area, noting it's met more than 100 times with Treaty 8 nations since beginning consultations in 2007.

Trevor Proverbs, Hydro's director of First Nations engagement for Site C, said the utility is committed to a number of wildlife and fish habitat compensation measures, including the reclamation and enhancement of wetland habitat, and working with the province to designate ungulate winter ranges in the region.

It has also proposed to monitor mercury levels in fish stocks, and would support an indigenous plant nursery operated by West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations. It would also remove a 138-kilovolt transmission line in the region. It would also offer up Crown land transfers, fund community infrastructure and involve the band in training and contracting opportunities during the dam's construction.

But those commitments and compensation measures fell flat for most members, who criticized Hydro for ignoring the paths other provinces have taken in generating electricity by other means, including solar, wind and geothermal technology.

Jim Webb is a sociologist who first came to West Moberly in 1981 for work and now lives in the community. He noted the province's historic Two Rivers Policy called for the maximization of the hydroelectric potential of the Peace River.

However, that maximization by adding Site C cannot be reconciled "with the ongoing use of the valley as a refuge for wildlife, as a place for agriculture, and a place where our cultural and spiritual values can be protected," he said.

"We know we need power. We know we need industrial development ... jobs and businesses," Webb said. "But, they can't be made at the expense of a way of life that's prevailed here for the last 10,000 years."

That 10,000-year history is richly catalogued by the artifacts stuck in the ground across the valley, West Moberly band member Darcy Brown said. He predicts there to be as many as 1.1 billion aboriginal artifacts to be uncovered, telling the story of life and commercial trade throughout the ancient Peace.

He criticized Hydro for not using industry-standard methodology for its archaeological assessments for the project, digging every 10 metres instead of every five metres, while others complained that many of the unearthed finds were shipped down south and remain inaccessible to First Nations communities.

It gives the impression First Nations culture is again being overlooked, said Brown.

"You tell me if you take away the pyramids, you wouldn't lose a part of Egyptian history?" he said. "If you took away Stonehenge, would you not lose a part of English history?"

Chief Willson concluded the hearings by calling for a full, cumulative assessment of development in the region before it becomes ecologically unsustainable.

"Our rights are continuously pushed aside for other interests," he said. "We're told to move over there or hunt over here. There are not many places left for us to go.

"Let's work together to protect the last remaining stretch of the Peace River that's relatively undisturbed," he said.

Public hearings continue Tuesday in Saulteau First Nations, with sessions in McLeod Lake and Prince George on Wednesday and Thursday, before resuming in January. The panel will issue its report to the provincial and federal governments by spring.