NEWS
09/12/2016 15:48 EDT | Updated 09/13/2017 01:12 EDT

B.C. premier offers flood relief for Kitimat hydro dam project decades later

CHESLATTA LAKE, B.C. — It's been more than 60 years since members of the remote Cheslatta Carrier Nation in northern British Columbia were told they had a few weeks to leave their homes because a man-made flood was coming.

On Monday, the provincial government tried to make amends.

The Kenney Dam project was built to provide hydroelectric power for the aluminum smelter at Kitimat, a 400 kilometre drive from Cheslatta territory. 

The dam created a massive reservoir and rerouted the Nechako River system, flooded traditional Cheslatta territories and communities and regularly exposed the human remains at a local cemetery. It was the largest privately funded construction project in Canada at the time and included a 16-kilometre tunnel through the Coastal Mountains.

"The reservoir, when it was built or in the process of building, people went around and said, 'Look, the flood's coming. You've got two weeks to move,'" B.C. Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation Minister John Rustad said in an interview. "That was the level of consultation back in the 1950's."

Premier Christy Clark and Rustad were in Cheslatta territory south of Burns Lake to sign an economic and cultural framework agreement aimed to help heal historic wounds and shape a better future. The Cheslatta Carrier Nation is located more than 1,000 kilometres north of Vancouver.

"We cannot change history, but working together, we can create more opportunity and sustainable prosperity for the Cheslatta people," Clark said in a statement after viewing a Cheslatta graveyard that is often subject to flooding.

The $2.3 million framework agreement explores forestry, agriculture and recreation opportunities and plans to reduce flood events from the reservoir, the government said.

"There is a graveyard in one of the communities that's right along the lake and the high water will actually wash out graves," said Rustad. "It's very traumatic for the Cheslatta people. Some of the elders who have passed on, their hopes and dreams were to see the opportunity to return to their homeland. This is a big step towards that."

Cheslatta Chief Corrina Leween said in a statement that the agreement provides dignity for her community after decades of seeing their dreams washed away.

The Cheslatta Carrier Nation includes less than 400 people who live in several isolated, tiny reserves.

Officials with Rio Tinto Alcan Inc., the owner of the Kitimat smelter, attended the announcement within Cheslatta territory.

"Today seals the foundation for a long term relationship that will have beneficial outcomes in the future," said Gervais Jacques, Rio Tinto's Atlantic Operations managing director in a statement. "We are focused on moving forward and continuing our dialogue with the Cheslatta with the goal of reaching an agreement."

Rustad said the Cheslatta people have been waiting patiently for years for government acknowledgment that the Kenney Dam project flooded their traditional territory, destroyed hunting, fishing and living areas and dried up parts of the Nechako River.

Rustad said he doesn't expect the province to be making similar reconciliation statements decades in the future when it comes to the completion of the $9-billion Site C hydroelectric dam in B.C.'s northeast.

The Site C dam, which includes an 83-kilometre long reservoir, included a consultation process with area First Nations that started a decade ago, he said. 

— By Dirk Meissner in Victoria.