British Columbia

Site C highway will destroy gravesite, sweat lodge say First Nations

The Prophet River and West Moberly First Nations say plans to realign a highway to make way for the Site C dam in northeastern B.C. will destroy important cultural sites in the region.

West Moberly First Nation Chief Roland Willson wants Hydro to use alternate route

BC Hydro says it must put out contract bids to realign Highway 29 in northeast B.C. by June 15 in order to avoid a year-long delay in the construction of Site C. Two property owners will be forced out of their home as a result. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

When it comes to the Site C hydro electric dam debate, Chief Roland Willson says jobs and taxpayers are getting more attention than the treaty claims of Indigenous people.

"We're kind of an afterthought to this whole process," said Willson, elected chief of the West Moberly First Nation.

"We're the ones who have the treaty rights ... and we just get trampled on all the time." 

West Moberly Chief Roland Willson is concerned about the impact Site C will have on traditional lands in B.C. northeast region. (Treaty 8 Tribal Association)

Willson has added his name to the list of letter-writers weighing in on whether Site C construction should continue this summer. He has written about the dam's impact on traditional land. 

The latest arguments kicked off June 1 when NDP Leader John Horgan advised B.C. Hydro not to finalize any contracts for Site C until the project was sent to the B.C Utilities Commission for review.

That set off a flurry of correspondence between Horgan, Premier Christy Clark, Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver and a B.C. carpenter's union weighing in on the pros and cons of allowing the project to go ahead. 

Willson and Prophet River First Nation Chief Lynette Tsakoza sent a message to Clark and BC Hydro CEO Jessica McDonald expressing concern over statements the pair have made about the need for construction to continue immediately.

Both Clark and McDonald say a portion of Highway 29 must be realigned this summer to avoid flooding, and that delays would cost rate payers $630 million.

The new road would run through the homes of two families whose properties have been expropriated by BC Hydro.

The chiefs say the new road would also destroy land claimed as culturally significant by the Dunne-za people, which includes West Moberly and Prophet River.

Willson says the Dunne-za have a strong relationship with Ken and Arlene Boon, property owners whose land has been expropriated by B.C. Hydro. The Boons also own land claimed as spiritually signifigant by the Dunne-za and hand it over to them for cultural events. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

"What has not been reported is that a Dunne-za gravesite identified in June 2016 is also located on the centre line of the proposed highway realignment," the letter reads.

"The new highway would also destroy a nearby sweat lodge and other important cultural sites in the area that has and continues to be used by the Dunne-za (Beaver People) for thousands of years."

Willson says the area of Bear Flats has been a traditional gathering spot of the Dunne-za people for thousands of years.

"Everybody knows about it, BC Hydro knows about it, the province of British Columbia knows about it," he said.

B.C. Hydro's preferred route for highway realignment runs through the land of eight properties, including two who will have to move as a result. (BC Hydro)

He says there is another option for realignment that would bypass the cultural sites and the properties scheduled to be destroyed.

"The only reason that we can see [for the current alignment] is because it gets rid of everybody in the valley," he said. "They remove any obstacle that they have there."

The letter also claims the timeline set out by Clark and Hydro is misleading, arguing it is extremely unlikely for flooding to close the current highway and, were it to occur, the costs would not be nearly as high as predicted.

B.C. Hydro has not yet responded publicly to the letter nor inquires about the alternative route.

Willson said it's frustrating the debate around Site C is often framed as being either for or against jobs.

"We want jobs, too," he said. "Let's build a geothermal plant. More jobs, better for the environment, everybody's happy."

Long-term he hopes to stop Site C in court, having filed to appeal on a previous ruling that government is not obligated to determine if the project violated treaty rights before moving forward

Short-term, however, he simply wants to protect cultural sites from a new highway.

"We're not even fighting about Site C on this issue," he said. "Just move the road."

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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 the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca.