With Helen Knott.

On September 12, 2016, the Federal Court of Appeal in Montreal heard Treaty 8’s legal challenge to the massive Site C hydroelectric dam already under construction on Treaty 8 territory in northeast British Columbia. First Nations community members from Treaty 8 travelled 4,500 kilometres to be there. This is the story of their journey and of how, through a profound act of witnessing, a small group of fiercely determined people have brought the nation’s attention to a forgotten corner of BC.

Hidden in Plain Sight

The people of the Prophet River and West Moberly First Nations have been fighting the Site C hydroelectric dam project for close to five decades. Opponents of the dam have held hunger strikes and set up encampments outside BC Hydro’s headquarters. A group of protectors endured 62 days and nights of northeastern cold before an injunction shut down their blockade. Every year, activists and supporters come together for a Paddle for the Peace: in past years paddlers have included the now-Justice Minister Jody Wilson Raybould. Despite these efforts – and though it is now Canada’s largest current infrastructure project – the Site C dam has somehow managed to stay hidden in plain sight.

The plan to flood 170 kilometers of prime farmland and First Nations territory – all for energy that the province has failed to prove a need for – has been condemned by Amnesty International, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs and, recently, the Assembly of First Nations. Even the former chair of the federal-provincial panel appointed to review Site C Dam, Harry Swain, denounced the project, saying “the environmental and First Nations land rights issues are serious costs that would have to be borne if the project goes ahead. You would only want to do that if there were an overwhelming economic case that this was the best and cheapest way of providing something that the provincial economy absolutely required. And I’m saying … you can’t pass that test.”

Yet, in spring of 2016, Christy Clark vowed to push the project “past the point of no return.” Trudeau quietly issued permits for the project just days after the Paddle for the Peace, in violation of his election promises to build a new relationship with indigenous peoples. By late summer 2016, many people working to stop the dam felt they were on the ropes. So much depended on Treaty 8’s court challenge, but was anyone watching?

Crowd Powered Caravan

When Yvonne Tupper suggested sending a caravan across the country to raise the alarm on Site C, the idea seemed far-fetched. The court date was just weeks away: band members from Treaty 8 and supportive First Nations would need to organize logistics and raise $30,000 for a ten-day journey. The group reached out to LeadNow, the national organization who, tapping into a surprising undercurrent of concern over the Site C dam, had collected 20,000 signatures on a petition. Almost overnight, thanks to an online fundraising campaign, LeadNow members made enough $5, $10, and $20 contributions to give the green light to the Justice for the Peace Caravan.

When the sun burst above the canola-yellow fields on the banks of the Peace River on the morning of September 5, a bus emblazoned with “Justice for the Peace” decals stood ready to roll – ready to bring the “hidden” travesty of Site C right onto Trudeau’s front lawn.

A Chink in the Armour

There wasn’t a great deal of fanfare accompanying the group. A story was published in the Peace Country Sun. In Edmonton, the Council of Canadians pitched in for a rally at the provincial legislature. A stop in Winnipeg proved to be a crucial turning point.

“After a long bus ride and 2 a.m. arrival, we kept pushing through to talk about Site C. We went for breakfast with a Liberal MP, we sat in circle with community members, and attended Meet Me at the Bell Tower, a weekly event for community to stand together to stop violence. The circle stirred a lot of emotions within me and throughout the day I could feel the big cry trying to surface from deep within my belly. I cried over pancakes as we talked with the MP about the Peace River, I cried holding the megaphone at the Bell Tower. My first instinct was, I need to go to the water. I need someone to take me to the river so I could give this grief away and find my grounding again to continue forward on this emotional journey. And then I thought… What happens if they build this dam? What will I do then? Will I take myself to the dam to find healing? Will the reservoir hold my grief? And then I wanted to cry more.”

The Liberal MP the group met with was Robert Falcon Ouellette. After hearing the impassioned testimony of Treaty 8 people and their neighbours, Ouellette promised to seek out further information and bring the group’s concerns to his Liberal caucus. Knowing that one MP was willing to break ranks and speak out bore out the basic faith that caravan members were carrying with them: that, as people impacted first-hand by the dam, they could impart the urgency of their cause through face-to-face, heart-to-heart conversations.

“I’ll convey your point of view, and your information, to the people I think need to hear it,” said Ouellette. “I will continue to advocate on behalf of the people of the Peace River. You have my word on that.”

Our Day in Court

The caravan members wake up in Oka, Kanasetake on September 14 and make their way to the federal courthouse in Montreal. Today, their case stands to put the brakes on the Site C project, though the challenge has a deeper purpose as well.

For First Nations located in epicentres of extractive industries, the cumulative impacts of industry are making the realization of treaty rights – to hunt, fish, and practice their traditions – next to impossible. Much of Treaty 8’s traditional territory has been disrupted by massive, ongoing oil and gas development, mining, logging and the construction of two previous large dams on the Peace River.

At a rally at the Federal Court, Mohawk Grand Chief Serge Simon announced the upcoming Treaty Alliance linking indigenous peoples across Turtle Island (later signed Sept 22 by over 70 First Nations). He called for governments in Canada to be held accountable to the spirit and intent of historic treaties when making decisions about large-scale resource development projects, whether they be mega-dams, mines, tar sands operations or pipelines.

Just as impacts are cumulative and intersecting, so is resistance.

“The journey here has been full of my own grief and the potential reality of loss but today in the courtroom I felt the hope expand inside of me and reignite my passion to move forward all over again.

“I have always been living in the shadows cast by Site C since its approval in 2014. Today that changed and I can feel that something will happen, and I don’t know in what format that justice will be served, but I know that we will keep our river flowing.”

Roots, Rising

If what was needed was to drag BC’s white elephant into the spotlight, then the Justice for the Peace caravan’s mission was a blazing success. National media coverage has followed the presentation of 87,000 signatures on petitions calling for a moratorium on Site C development. As good as his word, Robert Ouellette got the ball rolling in the House of Commons, raising the issue with Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc. MPs such as Charlie Angus have taken up the dialogue, helping keep up the momentum and confronting Justice Minister Jody Wilson Raybould and PM Trudeau with the injustice at the dark heart of Site C.

But the real beauty and value of the caravan goes deeper, to the roots that are being fed and fostered across the country, linking indigenous land defenders with one another’s communities and cultures. Whatever the decision of the Federal Court of Appeal in the case against Site C, the links forged on the journey will be unbreakable.

“We drove all night last night and awoke in Thunder Bay for a pit stop, breakfast and rest for the Driver. We ended up in the Walmart parking lot needing to smudge and pray before we continued our journey, so we set up circle on the side parking lot. As our group stood in circle, waiting for the smudge to make its rounds and bless and cleanse each of us, a funny thing happened. First, another brother showed up silently taking off his jacket and finding his place in our circle standing with us. Then another brother showed up and stood in the circle with us. Then a sister showed up and stood in circle with us and these strangers all prayed with us. A reminder that this all happened outside of Walmart and was … slightly magical. Medicine and prayer requires no introduction.

“I know I am supposed to talk more about the dam, or about the water, but right now it is all about compassion and the hope that it brings to me. We truly are never alone when we have brothers and sisters across the country willing to make things happen and stand in solidarity.

“Today I am grateful and I have a full heart. Hakatah Wuujo Asonalah.”

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Helen Knott is a spokesperson for the Justice for the Peace Caravan, and quotes are from her Caravan Diary.

Originally published in the Watershed Sentinel, November 12, 2016. https://watershedsentinel.ca/articles/site-c-caravan/