Site C approval a 'Christmas present' says McLeod Lake Indian Band chief

Chief Harley Chingee estimates economic benefits of the dam to his community will be "nine figures, at least" Christmas present" and advised other Indigenous leaders to negotiate their own deals.

Harley Chingee estimates economic benefits will be 'nine figures, at least' for his community

Although the construction of the W.A.C. Bennett dam in the 1960s had a negative impact on the McLeod Lake Indian Band, Chief Harley Chingee says the economic benefits of the Site C dam will help undo past wrongs. (BC Hydro)

The chief of the McLeod Lake Indian Band in northern B.C. says the NDP's decision to move forward with the Site C dam project is "a Christmas present" and advised other Indigenous leaders to start negotiating economic benefits from the project.

"I saw the writing on the wall a long time ago," said McLeod Lake Indian Band (MLIB) Chief Harley Chingee. "This project is too important for our government to shoot it down."

Chingee said the dam will bring jobs to his band, whose main community is located about 250 kilometres southwest of Site C.

He is one of few Indigenous leaders to speak in favour of the controversial dam.

On Monday, Premier John Horgan announced his government will allow construction of the dam to move forward, drawing negative reaction from many Indigenous leaders.

Indigenous protesters camped out near the Site C dam project in northern B.C for several months in 2015 and 2016. (Yvonne Tupper)

The West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations have vowed to go to court to stop the project, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs condemned the NDP's approval of the project and numerous Indigenous groups in Alberta and the Northwest Territories have expressed concerns over the downstream effects of the dam on their respective regions.

Some First Nations that have signed agreements with BC Hydro have remained silent on the project.

However, the McLeod Lake Indian Band urged the NDP government to press forward.

In its submission to the B.C. Utilities Commission review of Site C, the band warned that stopping construction of the dam would be an "economic catastrophe" and would set back the new relationship the MLIB have entered into with BC Hydro."

In a sworn affidavit, Chingee said the Site C marks an opportunity to make up for past wrongs, contrasting it with the W.A.C. Bennett dam in the 1960s.

The construction of that project flooded more than 155,000 hectares of McLeod Lake Indian Band territory, causing severe hardship.

A panel of an exhibit at the W.A.C. Bennett dam, acknowledges the negative impact of the dam's construction. A quote from an Indgenous community reads: "They call it progress, we call it destruction." (BC Hydro)

"Members could not trap, hunt or fish like they used to," the affidavit reads. "Members lost the ability to provide for themselves and the ability to pass those traditional skills on to their children. By the 1980s, almost all members had abandoned trapping... many MLIB members had to go on social assistance."

Chingee said the negative impacts of Site C on band land was "minimal", while agreements giving band members access to jobs and contracts would help with "economic reconciliation" and self-sufficiency.

In 2000, McLeod Lake became signatories to the 1899 Treaty No. 8, which covers much of northeast B.C.

Those agreements also allow the band to select roughly 1,012 hectares of Crown land to be added to its territory and include payments from Hydro to the band.

Chingee toldRadio Westhost Sarah Penton that while negotiations are ongoing, he expected the final amount to be "nine figures, minimum."

When asked about the concerns of other First Nations who say hunting and burial grounds and cultural spaces will be destroyed by Site C, Chingee said he didn't think anything would stop Site C from moving forward so they should "get on board."

Chingee said jobs on Site C construction are helping McLeod Lake Indian Band members economically. (Christer Waara/CBC)

​"The opportunity only happens once in a lifetime," he said.

"And it's a big one."

In 2016, BC Hydro acknowledged the impact the W.A.C. Bennett dam had on First Nations and Métis communities and, in the agreement signed with the MacLeod Lake Indian Band, BC Hydro says, "We will not repeat the mistakes of our past."

In a submission to the B.C.Utiltlies Commission, BC Hydro said Site C will not affect any reserve land or land owned by First Nations.

About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

@akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is a radio producer and digital journalist in northern British Columbia, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George.