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Documenting ‘The Peace in Peril’: A Q&A with Christopher Pollon

The story behind the story. Book launches this week in Vancouver.

By Christopher Cheung 14 Nov 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Christopher Cheung is a reporter and page editor for The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

Before construction began on the Site C dam in northeastern British Columbia, which is set to swallow 50 islands and a valley, writer Christopher Pollon and photographer Ben Nelms set out for Peace Country, a region that humans have occupied for more than 11,000 years.

The result of their adventure is The Peace in Peril: The Real Cost of the Site C Dam, a travelogue with interviews and photographs of locals about to lose the land they know. You can read an excerpt here.

Many British Columbians have never been to the Peace region, and — if work continues on the Site C dam — may never have the chance to see it as it is now. (Premier Christy Clark has promised to push dam work “past the point of no return” before next year’s May election.)

We asked Pollon, who is also a Tyee contributing editor, what it was like to document the land and lives of those who have now found a dam on their doorstep.

The Tyee: What first piqued your interest about the Peace region and Site C?

Pollon: At the outset I had trouble pointing to the Peace on a map. Site C got me thinking about it: we get more than one-third of our electricity from the two dams already on the Peace River, but most people in the south of the province, home to over half of the population, don’t even know the Peace region exists.

I was fascinated that this little chunk of the great plains in the remote northeast corner of the province, which is so invisible to most of us, is the natural resource engine for the province. My interest transcended hydro — the region has been transformed by natural gas extraction — access roads, pipelines — and [is] dotted with wells that may never be reclaimed. It made me curious about the people who lived there.

Why were you inspired to do a project this way: writing a book based on a trip, and with a photographer?

Paddling the stretch of river that will be destroyed, in advance of the flood, seemed like an intriguing way to approach a story about a big, pending hydro dam. Edward Abbey did the same thing to document the destruction of the Glen Canyon on the Colorado River, and early on I became aware that the basic premise of the book was similar to that of James Dickey’s Deliverance.

What makes the atmosphere of Deliverance so foreboding (and creepy) is that the characters must pass through a landscape on the verge of an apocalyptic flood. All the stories, all the secrets of that river are soon to be erased, as if none of it ever existed. That’s the same feeling we frequently had as we paddled the section of the Peace that will be destroyed by Site C, sleeping out randomly on these amazing wild islets that dot the main stem of the river. So our initial impulse was not so much to explore the politics of the dam, but to explore the section that would be flooded and create a lasting record — with my travelogue narrative illustrated by Ben’s colour photography — of an irreplaceable landscape soon to be under 50 metres of water.

The big surprise for us was that despite the two existing dams, the Peace River remains, at least for the time being, a wildlife nursery of extraordinary abundance.

How did you feel as outsiders to this region?

We were tourists! The anticlimax of the book occurs when a helicopter from North Peace Search and Rescue descends over our canoe — unbeknownst to us, a search and rescue operation had been staged when Ben didn’t check in with his wife at the pre-arranged time. So at times we were bumbling, stereotypical urbanites in the wilderness.

But at the same time, like all city people, we are completely beholden to the electricity generated on the Peace for all the comforts of civilization. So even as outsiders, we are intimately connected to that river. I came to recognize a sort of personal complicity in the destruction of the Peace River, both from past dams and what is to come.

Tell me about speaking with people who were about to lose the land they knew.

We were there in [the] autumn of 2015, at a point when there was more confidence that the dam could be stopped, or at very least delayed. At one point I was standing with Arlene Boon, a third generation farmer, on her alfalfa field on the banks of the Peace. She told me that BC Hydro had told her grandfather he would have to leave that very spot, but they were still there. But it now looks like the Boons, this family that is the bedrock of the community, will have to be out of their homestead by Christmas to make way for a realignment of the highway.

I met members of the Tsay Keh Dene First Nation who not only lost everything with the creation of the Williston reservoir (flooded in the late 1960s for the W.A.C. Bennett Dam), but to this day are forced to subsist on costly, dirty diesel generators for energy. Their homeland is underwater and they have been resettled on the edge of the reservoir, and they are not even connected to the B.C. electrical grid.

I also interviewed a trapper who will lose a chunk of his trap line to the Site C reservoir, but like a lot of working people, is not against the dam. In fact, he is excited that one day, the new Site C reservoir will become something akin to Okanagan Lake, spawning a local tourist boom.

What do you think British Columbians should be alerted to about a project like this?

If we are going to spend $9 billion (the eventual cost will be higher) and destroy a landscape so rich in wildlife, farmland and heritage, the least we can do is be absolutely certain that we need the power on the timeline the government has put forward.

The Achilles’ heel of Site C is that the government exempted the dam from extensive scrutiny by the BC Utilities Commission — the same process that resulted in Site C being rejected in the early ‘80s.

As it stands now, the ratepayers of BC Hydro — the customer base of the utility which includes most British Columbians — will be on the hook to pay for this project beginning in 2024, the year the dam is set to operate. It’s not too late to go back to the utilities commission, and if need be, suspend the project.

To read an excerpt of Christopher Pollon’s The Peace in Peril: The Real Cost of the Site C Dam, go here.  [Tyee]

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