Tsay Keh Dene, a remote First Nation on the north shore of the Williston Reservoir, is pushing the federal government for new reserve lands to replace those flooded half a century ago by the W.A.C. Bennett dam—another step in a decades-long reconciliation process.
Parts of the nation's original reserves were submerged under the Williston Reservoir in the late 1960s, and the impacts of the rising waters are still felt today.
"I didn't know what was going on. I didn't really realize that a catastrophic event was happening," said Donny Van Somer, chief of the neighbouring Kwadacha First Nation. "I was just a kid growing up playing along the shores, but I do remember (the water) coming up very fast."
According to a letter from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC), Tsay Keh Dene is seeking four parcels west of the Finlay River, including the community itself and a cemetery.
When the dam was completed in 1968, Kwadacha and Tsay Keh Dene were united as the Finlay River Band. Among the flooded sites was Fort Grahame, home to people from both bands.
"Under settlement agreements made among the Tsay Keh Dene First Nation, Canada, the province of British Columbia and BC Hydro dated Sept. 22, 1989, March 17, 1994 and August 31, 2009, Canada is now implementing the creation of the proposed reserves," an AANDC official wrote in a letter to the Peace River Regional District.
Tsay Keh Dene Chief Dennis Izony could not be reached for comment by Alaska Highway News' print deadline.
In 2009, the nation approved a settlement agreement with BC Hydro and the province through a referendum. Eighty per cent of voters approved the deal, which brought an end to litigation launched in 1999.
Kwadacha First Nation signed a similar agreement the year before.
The lawsuit named BC Hydro, the province and the federal government as defendants and alleged the reservoir represented a breach of the Crown's fiduciary duty to First Nations, as well as an infringement on Aboriginal rights.
The reservoir plunged the communities into isolation.
The Tsay Keh Dene lived in what was then the Peace River valley, and travelled by river to access food and surrounding communities, according to a BC Hydro release on the settlement.
"The river was our highway," said Van Somer, whose father worked as a riverboat operator for forestry companies. "It got flooded and there was debris all over the place, you couldn't get anywhere. There was no roads where we were."
By 2006, the provincial government and Tsay Keh Dene reached an agreement-in-principle on compensation. The deal included a one-time payment of $20.9 million, to be held in an endowment fund, as well as annual payments of around $2 million "in acknowledgement of the impact of the reservoir on the Tsay Keh Dene," the 2009 release states. The funds were aimed at social, cultural and governance programs.
In addition, the band was given direct award contracting opportunities with BC Hydro, annual road maintenance and "capacity funding" to allow the nation "to engage in discussions regarding impacts of new BC Hydro projects on the community."
"The agreement is simply the right thing to do as it corrects past wrongs done to the Tsay Keh Dene," then-Hydro president Bob Elton said in the release.
The dam's impact on First Nations people is often overlooked, Van Somer said, saying some officials involved in negotiating the settlement did not know where Williston reservoir was located.
"Let alone that there were people impacted," he said.
Tsay Keh Dene has a registered population of 480 on- and off-reserve members, and currently holds five reserves, including property in Prince George, according to the AANDC.