British Columbia

One of the biggest decisions in B.C. history is about to be made: the fate of the Site C dam

With a decision expected in days, people in northeast B.C. are waiting to finally hear the fate of the $8.8 billion megadam project whose roots go back to the 1950s.

After decades of division, those closest to Site C are tired of the fight

An anti-Site C sign erected near the dam's construction site. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

In Fort St. John, one thing can be agreed on: people are tired of the fight over Site C.

"The conversation is still very divisive in this community," Mayor Lori Ackerman said from city hall, 15 kilometres from the dam's construction site.

"You can take the same data and argue both sides ... it's really tough for the average person."

The decision over whether to move forward with the $8.8 billion dam has been promised by year's end and is one of the biggest in B.C.'s history.

The completion of Site would flood 5,500 hectares of the Peace River Valley and provide energy to power the equivalent of around 500,000 homes. BC Hydro says the project is on track to be completed by 2024, although the B.C. Utiltiies Commission has cast doubt on that claim. (Christer Waara/CBC)

Should Premier John Horgan allow construction to proceed, he will force ranchers out of their home and likely prompt First Nation court challenges. Pull the plug, and he faces blowback from union and business leaders and the challenge of finding alternative energy sources.

Either way, Ackerman said, Fort St. John needs a decision.

"We sit in an environment of uncertainty right now," she said, noting much of the city's budget is built around the dam.

"We can't stop on a dime."

Although Fort St. John stands to receive millions should Site C proceed, the city remains neutral on the project.

Fort St. John mayor Lori Ackerman says the city has taken a neutral stance on Site C due to the fact it has no power to control its fate. (CBC)

"The analogy we like to use is, Noah may not have been in favour of the flood, but he built an ark," Ackerman explained.

"Our role, as local government, is to protect the interests of the municipality."

The same position is taken by Fort St. John's chamber of commerce, said president Nelson Stowe.

"We have about 350 members and, within that membership, we have many for it and many against," he said.

"We have taken a position as a chamber to work hard with all stakeholders to ensure our local business community gets the maximum benefit if it proceeds."

The B.C. Utilities Commission did not recommend whether Site C should proceed or be canceled but did suggest alternative energy projects, such as Dawson Creek's Bear Mountain wind farm, could meet the province's energy needs as effectively as the dam. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

For those who support the project, the benefits are clear. Not only does Site C create jobs, they argue, it will be a source of reliable, renewable power to meet the province's growing energy needs and carbon reduction commitments.

An independent report from the B.C. Utilities Commission did not take a clear position on whether Site C should proceed or not. While it suggested BC Hydro's projected energy needs are "excessively optimistic" and dam construction would likely fall behind schedule and be over budget, it also noted alternative energy sources come with their own set of risks.

The BCUC did not advise whether cancelling or continuing construction of Site C would be better for the province, instead it noted both scenarios come with unique risks. (B.C. Utilities Commission)

Then there are the human stakes, on both sides. Some long-time ranchers in the region have had their land expropriated for the dam. The West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations say the project infringes on their treaty rights and promise to fight in court, the Blueberry River First Nation already is, and a coalition of Indigenous communities in Alberta and the Northwest Territories are raising concerns about impacts on their land.

Ruth Ann Darnall lives on a farm near Fort St. John and has been opposed to Site C since an earlier iteration was on the table in the 1960s. At a BCUC hearing in October, she spoke of the emotional toll decades of fighting had taken.

"It was draining," she said. "People would say to me, 'keep up the good work,' but would not commit to becoming active in our fight. It was implied that if I do, I could lose my job or my business will suffer."

A stand of trees removed from what used to be Ken and Arelene Boons' property, before it was expropriated by BC Hydro. To their right are yellow stakes, purchased by people around the world to show their opposition to the Site C dam. Should the project move forward, the Boons will have to leave a home that's been in Arlene's family for generations. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

At those same hearings, Dan Houghton identified himself as someone who had moved to Fort St. John to work on the dam.

"That choice was made in good faith," he said. "None of us want to be ruined financially by a decision that's beyond our control."

According to BC Hydro, 1,500 people are directly employed in Site C's construction, including 504 from the Peace River region.

Still, Stowe said, the local economy is diverse enough that its fate won't be determined by the dam. 

"For most people up and down the street, it's probably not top of mind," he said. 

Ackerman contrasted Site C with the oil and gas industry, which the city has vocally supported.

Fort St. John's ad warned that without pipelines, the Canadian economy will suffer. In contrast, the city has remained neutral on Site C. (CBC)

"[Site C]'s got a start date and an end date ... it will have a handful of people to operate it," she said.

"The industry, on the other hand, is a significant contributor to the GDP of this region and this province. It employs a lot of our local people."

Four other municipalities — Taylor, Chetwynd, Hudson's Hope and the Peace River Regional District — have benefits agreements on Site C, but none have taken a position on whether it should proceed.

Of the five First Nations to sign an agreement, only Chief Harley Chingee of the McLeod Lake Indian Band spoke in favour, saying the benefits of Site C are a step toward "economic reconciliation."

"We have our foot in the door," he said. "Let's move forward."

West Moberly First Nation Chief Roland Willson said should the province move Site C forward, the West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations will launch a $1 billion lawsuit, a price based on the settlement given to the Cree and Inuit of northern Quebec after they went to court to stop the construction of the James Bay Project in the 1970s. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

In contrast, Chief Trevor Makadahay of the Doig River First Nation said his community had little choice but to sign on with a project that was moving forward with or without them.

"We felt without our input on our grave sites and cultural history in the area, it would be lost forever," he said.

"The community has never given consent, just non-objection."

The leadership of the Dene Tha', Salteau and Halfway River First Nations did not respond to requests for comment.

Ramona McDonald, president of Fort St. John's Complete Safety Services, said she believes many in the region support the project but don't speak out.

Ramona McDonald moved to northeast B.C. as a child when her father got a job at the W.A.C. Bennet dam in the 1960s. (Complete Safety Services)

McDonald identifies as Metis and said her company is a Treaty 8 First Nation member through her late husband and children, who belong to the Prophet River First Nation. 

She said because Prophet River's leadership opposes the dam, she's been unable to get any Site C contracts, but she's still in favour.

"This far along, how can we say no?" she asked. "One of my girlfriends, a First Nations lady that I've known for many, many years, she finally got a job at the Site C dam and she's loving it."

Even so, McDonald agreed certainty would be better than the current situation.

"Everybody wants a decision. It doesn't matter which side of the street you're on," she said. 

"We can't do any more reviews. We can't do any more spending public money to find out what people are thinking. It's got to be a yes or no answer."

About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and cbc.ca, situated in unceded Lheidli T'enneh territory in Prince George. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca.