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Peace River flood survivors live with a dam’s disruptive legacy

Tensions remain between residents and the hydropower company responsible for the event.


This is an excerpt that was adapted for High Country News from The Peace in Peril: The Real Cost of the Site C Dam, by Christopher Pollon, with photographs by Ben Nelms.

In 1962, BC Hydro sent Charlie B. Cunningham, a former big game hunter and guide, on an expedition up the Finlay river into the tribal homeland of the Sekani, who once hunted, trapped and fished throughout north-central British Columbia.  His mission was to warn them about the great flood.

By this point, construction work was just set to begin on the W.A.C. Bennett Dam on the Peace River, at this point one of the largest earth-fill dams ever planned.  Over the next decade, the main stem of the Peace River would be throttled and a reservoir ballooned in size behind the walls, eventually holding the drainage of an artificial watershed bigger than Ireland.  It would be the first of two large dams on the Peace River system, which today generate a third of the province’s electricity.

At the time of his visit, the wild Finlay still roared down the Rocky Mountain Trench from the northwest, joining the Parsnip River at Finlay Forks, where the combined force of water turned eastward, giving birth to the Peace River.  

Cunningham marveled at the prosperous settlements built in bucolic settings at Ingenika and Fort Grahame, whose inhabitants are today known as the Tsay Keh Dene people. (The Finlay, the biggest and mightiest tributary of the Peace River, ran so pure that everyone drank from it.) The people he encountered were still deeply immersed in the rhythms of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle: starting in spring each year, they followed the seasonal harvests of fish, moose and berries.

“So far I have not found anyone hostile to the flooding,” Cunningham wrote of the visit. But to most of the people he met, the only dams they had ever known were built by beavers, a historical staple of their trap lines.

In This Was Our Valley, the most thorough account of the flooding that created the Williston Reservoir, Shirlee Smith Matheson (with pioneer poet Earl Pollon, no relation to the author) notes that BC Hydro initially predicted the new reservoir would enable the development of new forest and mineral resources, and provide access to fish and game once denied to “all but the most ambitious sportsmen.” Hudson’s Hope, long sidelined from the coal and forestry businesses by its remote location, would finally become Canyon City, a centre of industry and commerce.  

But the water rose faster than BC Hydro anticipated. 

Matheson recounts how bush pilot Pen Powell, who owned and operated a nearby hunting and fishing lodge, counted more than a hundred moose trapped on a high piece of ground by floating woody debris as the flood came. The next day he flew by to find the land gone, with floating moose corpses dotting the surface. An estimated 12,500 moose were killed by the flooding.

The Williston Reservoir engulfed over 1,770 square kilometers of land, lake and river behind  60-story-high  dam walls.  In its place was a four-armed man-made lake so colossal that then-Premier Bill Bennett famously bragged it would change the climate of the north. (Local farmers today claim it did.) Damming the Peace flooded enormous sections of the great Finlay and Parsnip river systems. To this day the true scale and extent of the destruction of life in these drainages can only be guessed at—no baseline information was recorded at the time to accurately measure what lived there before the great flood.

By far the worst fate was reserved for the Sekani. When the great flood finally came, it was as if the end of the world had arrived. Fort Grahame’s cemetery was flooded, while Ingenika Point’s graveyard was moved inland by BC Hydro to escape the floodwaters. It wasn’t moved far enough, though, and the recently exhumed remains eroded into Williston Reservoir.

Attempts were made to resettle the Fort Grahame band at two locations—one was never inhabited and another was only inhabited for a short time before the people tried to move back north into their territory. One of the sites the people moved back to was Ingenika Point at the northern tip of Williston Reservoir, which was located close to the mouth of the Ingenika River. But here their access to the upper Finlay was prevented by a debris trap infamously known as “the Plug”—an eight- square-kilometre log jam of huge cottonwood, spruce and poplar all pressed together on the reservoir. No watercraft could penetrate it. Shortly after the band’s resettlement, logging companies descended on their new home and razed the forests made newly accessible by the reservoir. The place was now worse than a wasteland. When the dam lowered the lake level by nine meters late that first winter, it exposed vast tracts of silty lake bottom to powerful winds, generating dust clouds so thick that the settlement was invisible to passing planes. (At Tsay Keh Dene, dust problems persist to this day and are a major health concern for the people.) The local men who dared to launch their boats into the new reservoir often became stuck for days, stranded in treacherous aquatic log jams, at the mercy of the winds that stirred up the surface. 

Today the survivors of the Williston Reservoir flooding include residents of two Rocky Mountain Trench First Nations whose communities include: Tsay Keh Dene, home to members of the Tsay Keh Dene Nation, which is situated at the north end of the Williston Reservoir, and Fort Ware, home to the Kwadacha First Nation, about 70 kilometres northwest of the tip of the Williston Reservoir.

Nearly fifty years after the First Nations of the area lost everything so the W.A.C. Bennett Dam could be built, both the Tsay Keh Dene Nation and Kwadacha First Nation, are still forced to live off the BC electrical grid. They subsist on dirty, expensive and unreliable diesel generation for electricity.

Christopher Pollon is a Vancouver-based independent journalist who reports on the politics of natural resources, focusing on energy, mines and oceans. His last feature for High Country News investigated the threats posed by Canadian mining to south-east Alaska trans boundary rivers and salmon. The Peace in Peril is his first book. You can follow him on Twitter @C_pollen or email him at [email protected]

Ben Nelms is a Vancouver freelance photojournalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Maclean’s, The Globe and Mail, and Sports Illustrated.