Members of Treaty 8 and their supporters have drawn a line in the snow at the historic Rocky Mountain Fort to stop ongoing clearing for the $8.8 billion Site C Dam.
The Rocky Mountain Fort, first established in 1793 as a fur trading post, marks the site of some of the first interactions between First Nations people and European settlers in the Peace Region.
“This fort was the initial relationship place, but I think there is so much significance down this whole valley,” said Helen Knott, who has been camped out at the Fort in shifts since New Years Eve.
The Rocky Mountain Fort is just one of the 42 heritage sites listed by the environmental impact statement for Site C that would be affected by the dam. Now home to new occupants, the Fort represents a new relationship as members of Treaty 8 stand with non-First Nations supporters in an effort to protect the culturally and historically significant sites that would be flooded by the 107 km-long Site C reservoir.
Construction and clearing for the Site C project began in August 2015 and has continued despite ongoing court cases raised by Treaty 8. The Supreme Court rejected the West Moberly First Nations and Prophet River First Nation request for an injunction to halt construction back in late August.
Since then, construction and clearing has continued largely unchallenged until November, when the first protester was arrested for obstructing traffic to the construction site.
In late November a hunting tent was established at the Rocky Mountain Fort but the Camp was not consistently occupied until New Year’s Eve. The New Year began with three additional arrests at a protest in solidarity with the Rocky Mountain Fort camp at the Site C construction gate on Jan. 6th.
All three protesters were charged with mischief. One of them was seed farmer and past Peace River Regional District Director Arthur Hadland. Moments before his arrest Hadland expressed, “If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything.”
The Rocky Mountain site is largely isolated. Cold winter conditions make it difficult for boats to access the site, so the only way for supporters to access the fort is via a three-plus hour drive from Fort St. John down unmaintained back roads or by helicopter.
When questioned on the challenges of living at the camp Yvonne Tupper explained, “actually its natural, it’s really weird to say but I think I was groomed with the life I lead, the challenges that I faced as an indigenous woman, the guidance of my family, friends, relatives, my work, it has all really prepared me to be a humanitarian to stick up for human rights and learn about civil liberties and laws.”
Tupper said that “there’s a lot more than just me standing here” referencing her culture and historical ties to the valley, as well as the interconnectedness of the Site C Dam to ongoing First Nations issues and a complicated relationship with government.
“Every time I see a Hydro worker it’s like a reenactment of the Treaty 8 signing because its interpretation, its language, its gestures, its intimidation and bluffing,” said Tupper.
Knott who explained that she was the descendant of one of the chiefs who originally signed Treaty 8 shared this sentiment.
“Who would have thought that we would be here in our grandfathers footsteps but for this purpose.” Said Knott. “When my great-great grandfather signed that treaty it was with foresight. One of the young guys out here today said ‘I’m a child and I have to live through this so I should have a say’. That’s what I think of as a parent.”
In an official statement from BC Hydro Dave Conway explained, “We respect the right of all individuals to peacefully protest and express their opinions about the Site C project in a safe and lawful manner. Our immediate concern is to ensure the safety of both Site C workers and the protesters.
As such, while we do have equipment in the area, we are not moving equipment within the immediate proximity of individuals or the encampment itself. All other construction activities are continuing as planned.” Members of the camp have been maintaining a fire near a bridge over the Moberly to prevent workers from proceeding with clearing.
The harsh winter conditions, isolation and an eviction notice from BC Hydro to have the camp dismantled by Jan. 1 have done little to dampen the determination of those camped out.
“What we’ve been saying is, as long as the sun shines the grass grows and the river flows,” said Knott, when asked how long they intended to stay.
Conway would not specify whether BC Hydro would pursue an injunction to remove protesters and said only that “we are evaluating all options and will continue to monitor the situation. We are hopeful this can be resolved.”
Despite strong passions, both Knott and Tupper admitted that there have certainly been challenges over the course of their time at the Fort. But on Dec. 12,the camp received a high profile visit from Dr. David Suzuki and Grande Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.
“I heard that the camp had been set up and figured wow, this is really going to get things going. So I just wanted to let them know that they are not alone,” said Suzuki.
Dr. Suzuki also expressed his frustration that after managing to stop the Site C Dam 30 years ago people now find themselves fighting the same project.
“It’s just amazing to me that the truth and reconciliation report has come out and Christy Clark is saying with recent First Nations court case rulings everything is going to change, when meanwhile nothing has changed,” said Suzuki.
Dr. Suzuki went on to say, “I’m asking what do treaties with Canada mean if Canada signs treaties do we mean it or not?”
According to Dr. Suzuki, the fact that this project has continued despite ongoing court cases meant that pro-business and pro-development politics overrode everything else including treaties signed with First Nations and described the situation as “shameful.”
Grande Chief Phillip echoed the frustration that the project has been allowed to continue despite continuing cases.
“I’ve had the honor and privilege to be up in Treaty 8 territory over the span of a number of years, I’ve participated in the Paddle for the Peace pretty much every year now for the last several years so I’ve seen first-hand the beauty of this land so to come back and see such horrific destruction and devastation is absolutely heart breaking,” said Grande Chief Phillip, when asked what seeing the site and visiting the Fort meant to him
Despite his expressed sadness, Grande Chief Phillip went on to say, “I’m so deeply honored to be here in this camp knowing what it represents and my heart goes out to the people that had it within their hearts to come out here in the dead of winter and set this camp up.”
The visit had a profound impact on the spirits of those at the camp, as Knott emotionally explained, “Honestly I was out there earlier and seeing the helicopter coming in I started crying because it’s really hard.”
Tupper said that her group had one male at the camp and they noticed that he needed a break so they started praying for men to come and support them every night.
“Today I looked at my friend Helen Knott and said your prayers have been answered look who you called for,” said Tupper.
Dr. Suzuki and Grande Chief Stewart Phillip expressed the hope that their visit would help to build support for the camp both across the province and the country. Grande Chief Phillip stressed the importance of building solidarity among all people stating, “We need to begin to organize people working in solidarity and unity.”
Dr. Suzuki then built on this point adding, “What excites me here is you see non First Nations people willing to go and get arrested and go to jail. It’s got to be more than just First Nations people.”
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip exclaimed, “It always takes the courage and integrity of a small group of people to bring about social change. World history has proven that and this is what this camp represents.”
Since the visit, support for the small group camped out has been pouring in on social media under the hashtag #NoSiteC., helping to capture the province’s attention. Organizers say that individuals everywhere are watching to see what unfolds at the Rocky Mountain Fort to determine the future of the Peace River Valley and BC’s largest public infrastructure project.