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First Nations gallery at Bennett Dam 'a chance to heal'

Image of person looking out over Bennett Dam
Looking out over the expanse of W.A.C. Bennett Dam near Fort St. John can be an emotional experience for members of First Nations who were hugely impacted by the flooding of the valley above the dam in the 1960s.

Gallery at visitor centre provides look back at flooding of valley in 1968

"From what I've seen, from our elders especially, this is a chance to finally be able to heal and overcome. I can't say, for sure, that will happen. But it gives them a chance to forgive."

– Shawna Case, Lands & Resources Officer, Kwadacha Nation

It's impossible for the outsider to fully comprehend what the flooding of a valley, now covered by BC Hydro's Williston Reservoir, meant to First Nations in the area. But a new gallery at the Bennett Dam Visitor Centre takes us a few steps closer.

The Our Story, Our Voice gallery, which opened in June, takes visitors on an emotional journey back in time, to before, during and after the valley was flooded in 1968. The creation of the dam and reservoir, located near Hudson's Hope in B.C.'s northeast, displaced aboriginal communities, erased hunting and trapline territory, disrupted migration routes and transformed aquatic life in the valley's waters.

At 183 metres in height, W.A.C. Bennett Dam, is one of the world's largest earthfill dams and a vital force in BC Hydro's delivery of clean, affordable hydroelectric power to British Columbians.

"Standing next to this huge symbol of power, the dam itself, it's hard for people to realize that up that canyon and across the mountains, are people who lived, and thrived, and were part of the land," says Susan Hatfield, who worked closely with First Nations elders to ensure their story would be told in the gallery. "And that valley was flooded, taken away from them, with many of them not really understanding what was happening."

The 1960s were a different time. The creation of the Williston Reservoir flooded 1,761 square kilometres, roughly 20 times the area that will be covered by the creation of a third dam on the Peace River, Site C, now under construction near Hudson's Hope. There was minimal consultation with First Nations on the Bennett project, compared to a Site C process in which we've engaged with First Nations since 2007 and have produced a nearly 30,000-page environmental assessment.

The Our Story, Our Voice gallery at W.A.C. Bennett Dam Visitor Centre features a powerful video, created by the Kwadacha Nation, called Kwadacha by the River.

There are exhibits outside the visitor centre that represent the traditional way of life of First Nations and Métis people in the region, including a replica Finlay River boat built by Emil McCook from Kwadacha Nation.

Significant contributions to the gallery and exhibits were made by an aboriginal advisory committee consisting of members from B.C. Métis Federation, Doig River First Nation, McLeod Lake Indian Band, Métis Nation B.C., Saulteau First Nations, West Moberly First Nations, and Kwadacha First Nation.

Hatfield has now seen Kwadacha by the River video close to 10 times, and says she gets more out of it with each viewing. She suggests that visitors set aside an hour to take in all that the gallery has to offer, as she sees this as a long-awaited chance for First Nations to tell their story.

"Reaching out and supporting Kwadacha elders to participate in creating this gallery, I think has done more to build relations between BC Hydro and First Nations in this area than anything that's taken place so far," says Susan.

Shawna Case agrees.

"It definitely has," says Case, who works as a land resources officer in Fort Ware, which has a population of close to 300. "I'm not an elder, but being part of that group, I've seen and heard so many different things. There were points at meetings where I would be in tears – I'd just be so mad when hearing all the different stories."

Image of the gallery at visitor centre provides look back at flooding of valley in 1968
"They call it progress. We call it destruction" is the message on a wall in the Our Story, Our Voice gallery at the Bennett Dam Visitor Centre.

Kwadacha are returning to Fort Ware

Sitting at the confluence of the Fox, Kwadacha, and Finlay rivers in the Rocky Mountain Trench nearly 400 kilometres north of Prince George, Fort Ware is the home of the Kwadacha First Nation. Originally a trading post of the Hudson Bay Company, Fort Ware was forced to relocate due to the flooding of the Finlay Valley for the creation of Williston Reservoir.

When Susan first arrived at Fort Ware 24 years ago, as a non-native instructor for the College of New Caledonia's adult education program there, the future of the village appeared fragile. Ironically, the village wasn't powered by BC Hydro at the time, and Susan recalls seeing extension cords leading from generators to the village school, store and to freezers in houses.

"The school is hugely changed," says Hatfield, who lived at Fort Ware for a decade before moving to Prince George. "The kids used to be promoted based on how tall they were. Now there's full, well-recognized and esteemed K through 12, and adult learning, that's making a real impact here. And there's a bridge across the river into Fort Ware – when I first came here, you went across on the ice in the winter, and in a boat in the summer, to get into the village."

Those improvements were spurred on by a 2008 agreement between the B.C. Government and BC Hydro and the Kwadacha First Nation to address the historical hardships that had been endured by the First Nation. The Kwadacha got an initial payment of about $15 million and annual payments of about $1.6 million.

"This agreement acknowledges that the construction of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam and Williston Reservoir more than 40 years ago caused significant economic and social problems for the Kwadacha," said Chris O'Riley – who at the time was BC Hydro's senior vice-president of engineering, Aboriginal relations and generation – on the day the agreement was signed. "At the same time, the agreement enables us to move forward by building a new relationship between the Kwadacha and BC Hydro that is based on mutual understanding, respect and trust."

Susan says that while so many rural communities in Canada suffer from people leaving for other cities as soon as they reach adulthood, Fort Ware is actually seeing some young adults actually returning to their home. Shawna Case is one of them.

"I ended up coming back," says Case, who left the village at age five to go to school. "With the school here and all the help I've had gaining my education, my decision was to come back and help the community. I want to be part of the growing, expanding community that's here now."

Visiting the Bennett Dam Visitor Centre

To get to the W.A.C. Bennett Dam Visitor Centre, you'll need to drive about 1.5 hours west of Fort St. John, along Highway 29 before taking Canyon Drive 21 km up to the Williston Reservoir. The visitor centre is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day through September 5, 2016.

Time your visit so that you can arrive 15 minutes in advance of a dam tour, as tours run hourly on the half hour from 10:30 a.m. through 3:30 p.m. In addition to the exhibits and the Our Story, Our Voice gallery, the newly-renovated visitor centre features a café and souvenir shop.