W.A.C. Bennett Dam Visitor Centre tells the First Nations story with new indigenous exhibits

Image of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam sign
The W.A.C. Bennett Visitor Centre draws thousands of visitors each year, despite its location in B.C.'s north. This spring, exhibits ranging from First Nations dwellings to a garden featuring plants used for medicinal purposes, will be added to help tell the story of the region's Aboriginal communities.

Interactive exhibits, stories will put a spotlight on First Nations

In the past few years, there's been a flurry of work going on at BC Hydro facilities in northern British Columbia. Some 19 projects were undertaken at the W.A.C. Bennett Dam and G.M Shrum Generating Station alone, to upgrade equipment and infrastructure.

Many of the projects are complete or nearing completion, and this spring an important addition to the W.A.C. Bennett Dam visitor centre will be unveiled, as new interactive exhibits tell the story of the region's Aboriginal communities.

"I am so looking forward to it," said Della Owens of the Saulteau First Nations, and a member of the Peace Aboriginal Advisory Committee (PAAC).

Thousands visit the impressive site each year

Visiting the facility, a short drive from Hudson's Hope in the northeastern part of the province, is described as being an "awe-inspiring" experience. The dam itself is taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza while the powerhouse is as long as two Canadian football fields.

Equally impressive is the cultural history of the area, which is home for several Aboriginal communities. The story of those communities is being told through the new exhibits, which are being developed with the collaboration of the Peace Aboriginal Advisory Committee.

Kaitlin Pozer is coordinating the visitor centre renovation for BC Hydro. On the phone from her office in Vancouver she explained that the PAAC is comprised of elders and representatives from Aboriginal communities in the region.

"They've come together on a regular basis to provide input and insights into Aboriginal content that is going into the visitor centre," she added. "They're ensuring the presence of an Aboriginal voice."

Saulteau First Nation member Owens said the experience of being on the PAAC has been rewarding. "The most important thing is hearing our side of the story," she said, on the phone from her home.

The visitor centre will include aspects of the First Nations and Métis communities that lived and still live in the region. The Peace Aboriginal Advisory Committee is made up of representatives from a number of Aboriginal groups in the region, including:

  • Doig River First Nation
  • Kwadacha Nation
  • McLeod Lake Indian Band
  • Saulteau First Nations
  • West Moberly First Nations
  • BC Métis Federation
  • Métis Nation BC

Interactive exhibits will be featured outside and inside

Exhibits arranged outside the visitor centre will include different dwelling types that First Nations people in the region lived in, some of which are still in use today. There will also be examples of different modes of transportation, including a flat-bottomed boat that was once used on the Peace River, and a canoe, which was typically used by Métis.

There will also be a garden featuring plants used for traditional medicine.

Inside the centre will be an area called Our Story, Our Voice which tells of the impact of dam creation on Aboriginal communities.

There is also going to be a documentary short film, being made with the Kwadacha Nation, about how lives were changed when the Williston Reservoir was created. "That's a really powerful piece that will have an impact on a visitor's perspective," said Pozer, "but it's a story that needs to be there to truly share the history of Bennett Dam."

Other upgrade activities at the dam and powerhouse

In addition to the interactive exhibits, visitors can also tour the GMS powerhouse, which starts with a bus ride to the base of the mountainous dam where the electricity is actually generated.

The Bennett Dam and GMS, built in the 1960s, are cornerstones of BC Hydro's electrical system. Like many things from that era, the two facilities are showing signs of age and wear. Since nearly a quarter of the electricity used by BC Hydro customers comes from the dam and powerhouse (nearly a third if you include the Peace Canyon facility just downstream), BC Hydro has been upgrading the structures and equipment to ensure reliability.

Completed projects include:

  • Turbine replacements at GMS: Five of the 10 turbines at GMS have been replaced with new efficiency units. Turbines are pushed by the water, which causes them to rotate.
  • Rotor pole rehabilitation at GMS: The rotors for Units 1 to 5 have been fixed. The poles create electrical current as the rotor spins.
  • Exciter transformer replacement at GMS: Two of these, which control the output voltage of the generator system, are in service.

Projects underway include:

  • Control system upgrade at GMS: Some of the unit controls are in service. After work on Unit 2 ends in March, control upgrades will begin on Unit 1.
  • Transformer replacement at GMS: Three new transformers are in service as part of phase 3 of this project. One additional transformer is being moved; it will be installed in 2017.
  • Spillway chute upgrade at Bennett Dam: Repairing the concrete surface of the chute, through which water flows as it leaves the reservoir, began in 2014, and is expected to start again this spring, but will depend on the water levels in April.
  • Spillway gate reliability at Bennett Dam: These control the discharge of water from the Williston Reservoir to maintain water levels. Mechanical and electrical upgrades are expected to be completed by August 2016.
  • Rip-rap upgrade: Boulder-sized rocks protect the Bennett Dam from erosion and need to be replenished. Replacing the rip-rap will take place in the dry months over the next three to four years.

W.A.C. Bennett Dam Visitor Centre reopens in May

The visitor centre will reopen in May and will be in operation from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week, until Labour Day.

Catherine Dokkie, who is also a member of the PAAC, is excited for the opening ceremony to take place later this spring. "I'm going to make a traditional buckskin dress to wear with my moccasins," she said.

Admission fees, hours of operation, directions to the W.A.C. Bennett Dam and Visitor Centre and the G.M. Shrum Generating Station are all available online.