Statement on the building of WAC Bennett Dam

Acknowledging the enduring impacts of Williston Reservoir

In 2016, BC Hydro’s then Deputy-CEO Chris O’Riley delivered the following statement at a ceremony celebrating the opening of the “Our Story, Our Voice” gallery at BC Hydro’s WAC Bennett Dam Visitor Centre in 2016. The Our Story, Our Voice Gallery takes visitors on an emotional journey that explores before, during and after the valley was flooded in 1968 told from the perspective of Indigenous groups in the area who were displaced by the creation of the dam and reservoir. 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.

We’re posting this statement in 2020 because it’s important to acknowledge BC Hydro’s past. We believe this statement should be memorialized on our public website.

Good afternoon everyone and welcome again to the WAC Bennett Dam Visitor Centre, where we are celebrating the opening of our new facility and the gallery which is called Our Story, Our Voice.

Before I go further with my remarks, I’d like to begin by expressing my appreciation to the First Nations for welcoming BC Hydro onto their traditional territory to participate in today’s event.

I’d like to welcome members of the Peace Aboriginal Advisory committee whose commitment to collaboratively working to share First Nations and Metis history, has helped make today’s event possible. I want to recognize the many elders in the audience, who made the trip to be here today, and especially those who have contributed to the exhibits. Thank you very much for being a part of this.  

At BC Hydro we exist to serve British Columbians with clean, reliable and affordable electricity. In fact, about a quarter of the electricity we use in our province comes from the water held behind the WAC Bennett Dam here before us.  

I want to say that this dam and powerhouse represent a source of great pride among BC Hydro employees across the province. It was an engineering marvel when it was constructed in the 1960s and even fifty years later, it is recognized around the world for its design and construction. It was well built and remains safe and extremely efficient at converting water into power. It has stood up very well to the test of time. But we know there is more to the story of the Bennett Dam. 

There is a photograph of the dam taken many years ago looking downstream. It was taken on a beautiful day with a full reservoir under a clear blue sky. The photograph shows the intake structure in the foreground, the crest of the earth fill dam and the spillway structure in the background. The only hint of the electricity being produced far underground is the substation and 500 thousand volt transmission lines off to the left, which take the power south. The photograph was made into a poster with the title "the best dam operation in BC". You will still come across it occasionally in our offices around the province. 

Of course, we know today that the photograph only shows part of the picture, part of the story. The photograph doesn't reveal what was here before the dam was built. It doesn't reveal the impact of the reservoir and the structures on the land and the forests that grew here and animals that lived within them. The photograph doesn't reveal the impacts of the dam on the river and on the animals and fish that drew life from it. And we know the photograph doesn't reveal the impacts of the dam on the people who lived here, the First Nations and Metis people who lived on the land, who drew sustenance from the forests and waters, and who travelled the river by boat to trade and connect with families and communities up and down the Peace River. It doesn't reveal the impacts on the people who had to move their homes and communities, because the river flooded their villages and disrupted their transportation routes.

Fifty years ago, the people who built the dam didn't see those impacts, they didn't see those parts of the picture. The governments of the day didn't see them, nor did the larger society which stood to benefit from the power. And it took many years for those of us who work at BC Hydro to truly understand the dam's adverse impacts. So while we remain proud of the engineering marvel that is the WAC Bennett Dam and we continue to be thankful for the prosperity it has brought to our province, we recognize the need to acknowledge those parts of the picture that we can't proud of. We recognize the need to acknowledge the adverse impacts of the dam on the environment and on the original people of this land. This acknowledgement is an important step in reconciliation.

I want to say today that BC Hydro deeply regrets these impacts. We will not repeat the mistakes of the past. 

Acknowledging these impacts, these mistakes, is something we've tried to achieve in our new Gallery: Our Story, Our Voice. We want to show the full picture. Last year we opened our new visitor centre which includes exhibits and displays that teach guests about BC Hydro’s electricity story – from the history of the hydroelectric development of the Peace, to how electricity gets to our customers. Today, we are unveiling our expanded Aboriginal cultural content throughout the displays. We wanted address the impacts of the dam and reservoir creation, and to represent some of the culture of the First Nations and Metis people who were impacted by the dam. We have developed displays including this tipi and river boat that represent the traditional way of life of First Nations and Metis communities.  

Working together with the Peace Aboriginal Advisory Committee and Kwadacha Nation, the Our Story, Our Voice gallery has been developed to capture the stories of hardship and change that the communities experienced. I know that sharing these stories brought up painful memories for some. I imagine this wasn't easy. For those that participated, thank you. For those that weren't ready, I want to say we absolutely respect that. 

We wanted to ensure we accurately represented the stories we've been entrusted with in a way that honours them. I truly hope we've done that. 

We’re very proud of the relationships we’ve been building with Aboriginal communities and the community of Hudson’s Hope, and we have big hopes for our visitor centre. 

We hope this centre will be a place that both residents and visitors to the Peace will want to come – a place to learn about our shared history; a place to learn about both the benefits and costs of hydroelectric generation; a place to learn about the importance of relationships. We hope visitors will see the full picture of the dam when they come here.

It’s an opportunity to educate the young and young at heart, while at the same time investing in tourism and economic development on a local level. 

I had the opportunity to walk through the centre earlier today and I couldn’t help but think about how our shared history – the good and the bad – is what defines who we are today and the path we take forward.

I know some of the people here today were personally impacted by the building of the dam, in deep, profound and painful ways. The course of many lives and communities were changed forever. I hope that through sharing stories like those we'll see in the gallery, we will educate a broader audience about the full picture of the Bennett Dam. 

Remembering what was lost reminds us to be more mindful of our actions today and in the future. 

Today, while we acknowledge what happened in the past, this is also an opportunity for us to look forward, to the future and what could be.