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Stellat’en, Saik’uz rally for the Nechako as Rio Tinto court case gets underway

Stellat’en and Saik’uz drummers at the Rally for the River outside the Prince George Courthouse Monday morning. Bill Phillips photo

Dismantling the Kenney Dam is on the table as far as Stellat’en First Nation Chief Archie Patrick is concerned.

However, he also agrees that increasing the water level in the Nechako River would be a good end result of a court case that began in Vancouver last week, moved to Prince George this week, and is expected to last more than a year.

Stellat’en Firt Nation Chief Archie Patrick. Bill Phillips photo

“(We want) to basically restore some of the way things were in 1952,” Patrick said in an interview on the steps of the Prince George Courthouse just before the local proceedings began. “It may not be possible to do it completely, we’re open to that. But if necessary, in the end, if they take down the dam and restore everything to the way it was in the 1950s, that’s probably our ultimate aim.”

In 1952, Rio Tinto (Alcan) created the Kenney Dam and diverts about 70 per cent of the flow of the Nechako River to generate power at Kemano. The power is used to fuel Rio Tinto’s aluminum smelter in Kitimat and is also sold to BC Hydro. The court case centres on the impacts of the construction and operation of the Kenney Dam on the Nechako River, its fisheries, and the Saik’uz and Stellat’en’s aboriginal rights. Since 1952, the project has resulted in devastating downstream effects in the river, particularly for salmon and the Nechako white sturgeon, and for the people and the communities who live near the river.

It’s a court case 70 years in the making. Patrick says for many years bands didn’t have the right to organize and sue governments and companies and, in addition, it didn’t have the resources to launch a lawsuit until now.

The dam increased the water level in several lakes in the area and the water sent west, rather than east.

He said the bands have not be compensated.

“Our case is for the water,” Patrick said. “The Nechako River for the last 69 years has been decreased by 70 per cent and no returns to us. There are times in the year when the Nechako has been reduced to a trickle. The place where the river originates has been ceded to a foreign company.”

He the land given, in perpetuity, to Rio Tinto is about a quarter of the size of Vancouver Island.

“What governments give away land?” he said. “The only things that stands in front of that is us, and our fights in the courts … It’s quite simple, we have rights and we’re going to enforce that, for the river.”

Saik’uz First Nation band councillor Jasmine Thomas. Bill Phillips photo

Saik’uz band councillor Jasmine Thomas said the band has been preparing for the court case for months and is pleased the case if finally underway.

“This has, and will be, a very long journey for the members of our community and our partners, the Stellat’en First Nation,” Thomas said.

She said that even though the dam has been in place for 70 years and the Nechako River is still flowing, now is the time for the court case.

“We believe we have a responsibility to fight to save the Nechako River and its fisheries for our members today and our future generations,” she said. “We also have a duty to protect our Constitutionally protected aboriginal rights.”

She said that when Alcan was given the rights, there were no consultations with First Nations nor were there any comprehensive studies done to assess the impact of the project on the local environment.

“It was a unilateral decision made in Ottawa and supported by the Province of British Columbia,” she said. “The decision was wrong, the process was wrong.”

The court case was moved to Prince George this week in order to allow band members to testify without having to travel to Vancouver.

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