Peace is priceless, Site C hearing told

Another Northeast B.C. First Nation has decried the loss of centuries-old culture in the face of big money when it comes to the possible construction of the Site C dam.

Doig River addressed the Joint Review Panel undertaking an environmental assessment of the project on Monday.

Public hearings on BC Hydro's proposed $7.9 billion hydroelectric dam resumed Jan. 6 after a holiday break, as the panel spent the day with the Doig River First Nation, about 50 kilometres northeast of where the dam would be located, on the Peace River just outside Fort St. John.

"Hydro only understands money. They don't understand spiritual value," former Doig Chief Garry Oker stated bluntly.

Doig is one of four Treaty 8 First Nations groups that refuse to enter into an agreement with Hydro concerning the project.

Elders and council members say Hydro is underestimating the value First Nations place on the Peace River valley, which has provided them an abundance of food and medicine for centuries.

Band members say that abundance is already on a sharp decline, and that they are already struggling to make ends meet through their traditional use of the land through rights to hunting, fishing and trapping guaranteed to them under Treaty 8, which Doig signed onto in 1900.

Previous hydroelectric development on the river along with an intensifying oil and gas industry in Doig's backyard have led to big declines in both the health and abundance of wildlife in traditional hunting areas ever since.

Doig Councillor Kelvin Davis said he took his grandson out on his first moose hunt a week ago. The hunt was an unwelcome introduction to the impacts of those developments, he said.

"We prepared it, skinned it, but when we opened up the cavity, this moose was unhealthy," said Davis. "It had cysts on its lungs, on its liver. It broke my heart for my grandson to shoot his first moose, and have to leave everything."

Hydro is seeking to build a 60-metre-high earth dam and an 1,100-megawatt generating station on the Peace River that it says it needs to meet a forecast 40 per cent jump in electricity demand over the next 20 years.

The dam's reservoir would flood 83 kilometres of the river, along with dozens of kilometres of both the Halfway and Moberly rivers and several other creeks. The project would send important hunting areas underwater, as well as wash out countless spiritual sites, including the grave of Chief Peter Attachie, an original signatory to Treaty 8, at the confluence of the Peace and Halfway rivers.

Several Doig youth told the panel it's disrespectful to flood these sites with water, and that the flooding would cut out their chances to learn cultural traditions in the valley.

"It is apparent that it's very difficult for government, including Hydro, to give proper weight and context to our spiritual and cultural values," Davis said.

Hydro says it has been in consultation with Doig through the Treaty 8 Tribal Association over the project since 2007. Hydro notes that the dam will cut off access to Bear Flats, Farrell Creek and Attachie.

However, the utility says it has offered up a basket of mitigation and compensation proposals should the project proceed. That includes fish and wildlife habitat compensation, Crown land transfers, the creation of a database of rare plants, monitoring of mercury levels in fish stocks and education and employment opportunities.

Trevor Proverbs, Hydro's director of First Nations engagement for Site C, said specific compensation programs like fish and wildlife projects are still in the "concept" stage, and need to be further developed with First Nations communities. The negotiations would also work out compensation figures for aboriginal trappers, which would become part of an impact benefits agreement.

"It would be an evolving process," Proverbs said.

The current Doig Chief, Norman Davis, noted this is not the first time the community has stood opposed to Site C.

"Over 30 years later, we continue to remain on the same path," he said. "This process is not an ideal situation for us."

Oker said many feel the public hearing process is heading only towards a predetermined outcome. He said the United Nations has given indigenous people the right to understand and be understood in political and legal administration proceedings, and the right to retain their spiritual relationship with their traditional land, territories and waterways.

He called for a new system of consultation that better integrates cultural heritage into environmental assessment process.

Hearings resume today in Halfway River First Nation, before moving to the George Dawson Inn in Dawson Creek on Wednesday and Thursday.

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