British Columbia

Homes burned, cemetery flooded: 67 years later, First Nation wins redress

A Northern B.C. First Nation will get millions in compensation after being flooded out by an industrial project in 1952. The Cheslatta Carrier Nation's homes and graveyards were flooded to make way for dams and reservoirs for the Alcan aluminum project.

Cheslatta Carrier Nation awarded millions in what B.C. government calls an 'historic wrong'

The Cheslatta were flooded out of their homes and forcibly relocated to make way for an industrial project in Northern B.C. in 1952. (CBC )

Sixty-seven years after an industrial project flooded out a B.C. First Nation, the B.C. government is providing "redress and restitution."

In so doing, it says it's addressing an "historic wrong."

In 1952, members of the Cheslatta Carrier Nation were forced from their homes with two weeks notice to make way for hydroelectric dams and a reservoir to power Alcan's new aluminum smelter in Kitimat.

The Cheslatta were forcibly relocated to land outside their traditional territories in central B.C.., according to the B.C. government. 

'Their homes had all been burnt'

People "packed up what they could and left," said Cheslatta Chief Corrina Leween, whose mother and grandmother were among those forced out

This archival photograph captured a Cheslatta Carrier village before it was destroyed in 1952. (CBC)

"When they went back to the reserve, their homes had all been burnt down. The only thing left was the Catholic Church the Cheslatta had built and that was eventually burned as well."

Then the flood waters rose, submerging the village, destroying 60 graves and unearthing ancestral remains.

After the flooding, ancestral remains float in the reservoir 

"That still occurs to this day," said Leween. "We still find bones along the lake. We collect them and bring them back to our community." 

A plaque on a cairn marks the site of a Cheslatta cemetery that was disturbed by industrial flooding in 1952. (CBC )

High waters in 2017 and 2015 further disturbed human remains.

In 2015, Mike Robertson, Cheslatta's senior policy adviser, told CBC it was a haunting situation.

"There's the cost of ... finding the leg of your grandmother or your uncle or your cousin. These aren't ancient graves. These are graves as late as 1952," Robertson said. "People are still alive that are directly related "

Leween said these historic injustices affect band members to this day.

'They still live with it'

"The younger ones, they didn't walk out, but they still live with it, the intergenerational impacts," said Leween."We are resilient, but there have been adverse impacts from the flooding and relocation.  There has been poverty, a high death rate, alcoholism, addiction and violence."

In this archival photo, Abel Peters sits in a Cheslatta graveyard which previously flooded. Peters said he was one of the few Cheslatta who spoke any English in 1952 and helped translate the demands his community leave. 'Everything was crooked, crooked all the way,' Peters told the CBC in 1991. (CBC)

Leween said signing the agreement with the province gave her hope.

"There was pride, tears, happiness," she said. "The devastation experienced by the Cheslatta people 67 years ago continues to this day," said Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Scott Fraser.  "Reconciliation demands we reckon with the truth of our shared history ..."

The Cheslatta has unanimously agreed to the restitution agreement. But  most of the specific terms will remain confidential for a year "pending negotiation with other parties." 

The agreement does include $4 million over a decade for environmental restoration, as well as land transfers and support for cultural and language programs. 

"We're in an era right now where we can actually take and make a success of a tragedy," said Leween. "This will allow us to do that, to rebuild our community."  

With files from Paisley Woodward

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