British Columbia

BC Hydro acknowledges dark past of W.A.C. Bennett dam in new exhibit

A new exhibit at the W.A.C. Bennett Dam Visitor Centre acknowledges how First Nations were negatively impacted, but a First Nations chief says the utility may be about to repeat the mistakes of the past.

One First Nations chief says BC Hydro is about to repeat the mistakes of the past with Site C

One of the new displays at the W.A.C. Bennett Dam visitor centre in Hudson’s Hope. The updated exhibit now features displays that tell the story of how First Nations communities were negatively impacted by the dam's construction in the 1960s. (BC Hydro)

BC Hydro has installed a new exhibit at the site of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam in northern B.C. that acknowledges how the province's largest hydroelectric facility negatively impacted aboriginal communities in the region.

The exhibit Our Story, Our Voice opened in the W.A.C. Bennett Dam Visitor Centre in Hudson's Hope last week.

The construction of the 186-metre-high dam, which was completed in 1968, created a massive reservoir that "inundated the forests and the waters which were the traditional and the current home of a number of First Nations communities," said BC Hydro deputy CEO Chris O'Riley.

Impacts on First Nations

O'Riley told Daybreak North the dam blocked the transportation corridors these communities used and said that their traditional river boats weren't well-suited to the reservoir.

The WAC Bennett on the Williston Lake Reservoir, near Hudson’s Hope (BC Hydro)

"There was extensive debris on the reservoir post-construction, and a number of lives were lost in that time in those early days as people tried to use these boats to get across the reservoir."

O'Riley said BC Hydro felt it was important to tell the story of how First Nations and Métis communities were impacted when they began refurbishing the visitor centre several years ago.

"We had recently done two financial settlements with the Tsey Keh Dene and Kwadacha First Nations around the impacts of the dam, and we felt that the telling of this story was an important part in the reconciliation process," he said.

One panel of the exhibit has quotes from First Nations communities, including "They call it progress, we call it destruction." (BC Hydro)

"There's tremendous benefits that come from hydroelectricity in our province, and we all benefit from the prosperity that it's brought, but there are impacts and there were certainly serious impacts when that dam was built in the 1960s. So we think it builds understanding to see that full picture, and it contributes to reconciliation."

'They are building Site C and doing it again'

He said that a number of elders and members of various First Nations attended the opening celebration of the exhibit on June 9.

The exhibit comes at a time when another hydroelectric project — the Site C dam — is facing opposition from some First Nation communities.

West Moberly First Nations Chief Roland Wilson said while BC Hydro may be apologizing for how First Nations were impacted during the W.A.C. Bennett project, "they are building Site C and doing it again."

A view shows a portion of the Peace River Valley that would be flooded by the construction of the Site C dam. (Peace Valley Environmental Association/YouTube)

"There's nothing clean about a large-scale hydroelectric dam and destroying the last remaining 80 kilometres of river valley that we have on the Peace River," he said.

"There's an old adage, if you're really sorry, stop saying sorry. Stop doing it. It doesn't mean anything if you just keep doing it."

O'Riley, however, said that Site C is a different situation than the W.A.C. Bennett Dam.

"Site C has gone through a three-year independent joint federal-provincial environmental panel, and coming out of that there were 175 very strict conditions imposed on the construction," he said.

"Second, the legal framework around how we engage with First Nations is completely different. For Site C we've been consulting with First Nations for eight or nine years."

With files from CBC's Daybreak North

To hear the full story listen to the audio labelled: BC Hydro acknowledges dark past of W.A.C. Bennett dam in new exhibit