Unearthing Columbia River Plateau Histories Through Environmental Assessment Reports

Pend D'Oreille River, British Columbia. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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In my first years at university, I spent many summer days working as an intern for a mining company on a remediation project, reading through environmental assessment reports, environmental impact statements, and related documents. Nearly two decades and some significant professional changes later, I’ve put these types of documents to use in the process of trying to understand how and why people “know” Columbia River Plateau fur trade history the ways we do. History surrounds us and pops up in what may seem to be unusual places, including environmental assessment reports, shaping how we think about our collective pasts in quiet, sneaky ways. In Canada, the legal “duty to consult” with First Nations has generated a considerable amount of research, resulting in extensive documentation of Indigenous histories and perspectives on the environment. Documents such as these provide evidence of governments fulfilling their “duty to consult,” with all its strengths and limitations, while also recording Indigenous input regarding environmental issues.

Around the year 2000, increasing population in the interior of British Columbia made expansion projects to existing hydroelectric dams desirable to utility companies and the growing public who relied on them. One such undertaking was the Waneta Hydroelectric Expansion Project of the Waneta Dam, proposed in 2000 and located at the confluence of the Pend d’Oreille and Columbia Rivers, just 800 metres north of the international boundary with the United States. In order to complete this type of development, utilities must apply to federal and provincial governments for approval under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act of 1992 and (in B.C.) the Environmental Assessment Act of 2002, and as part of this application process must submit Assessment and Comprehensive Study Reports of the proposed project. In the case of the Waneta Hydroelectric Expansion Project, the Environmental Assessment Office and Fisheries and Oceans Canada produced these documents in October of 2007. These documents are not just an interesting read (really!), but they’re also considered “the common basis for provincial and federal decisions about the development of the project,” and as such they are a crucial source for understanding the rationale behind decisions made about hydroelectric projects.

I enjoy working in these documents because they cover so much ground, exemplifying for me some of the many ways we interact with hydroelectric projects. They provide detailed documentation of the anticipated environmental and social impacts of such a project, the ways in which the corporation proposed to mitigate them, and whether the provincial and federal governments considered proposed mitigation plans adequate to continue the project. In the case of Waneta, details about the entities involved in construction, its expected “socio-economic” and environmental costs and benefits, and the anticipated effects on international relationships with the United States are all documented. The somewhat complicated explanation of the history of the Waneta Expansion Power Corporation reveals how this one site has been administered by both public and private entities since its construction in 1954, in addition to the construction of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Shepherd near the site following the 1846 Oregon Treaty with the United States. The dam expansion was expected to cost $400 million and the annual operation costs upon completion were estimated at $8 million – expenses that were rationalized in the report by the 435 megawatts of power to be produced to provide electricity for an additional 70,000 households in the interior of British Columbia. Of the environmental concerns raised in the report, that of the fate of the “only known spawning site for [a particular] white sturgeon population in Canada” is frequently repeated. It is second only to Indigenous questions and concerns. Of the 183 pages in the document, twenty five concern “First Nations Consultations and Interests” and provide insight into the ways in which the Waneta Expansion Power Corporation, the Canadian federal government, and the B.C. provincial government think of history and perceive their duty to consult First Nations groups. Pretty heavy stuff, but also good reading. Really.

This document contains all kinds of great information from and about Indigenous peoples in the B.C. interior, but I’ll only go into two of the topics here – community engagement and hierarchies of knowledge. Documented in the Assessment Report and Comprehensive Study Report for the Waneta Expansion Project is a striking disparity between the engagement in the consultation process of First Nations communities and non-Indigenous communities. An open house for community input on the Waneta project was held in the town of Trail, advertisements were made regarding the consultation process in local and regional newspapers, and documents were made available for viewing at public libraries in Castlegar, Trail, Rossland, Fruitvale, Salmo, and Nelson. With these efforts, the Environmental Assessment Office received only five responses from members of the public, of which three were from the open house in Trail. As the report states, “[o]f the five submissions received, two were from local/regional fish/wildlife stakeholder organizations and one was from a landowner who would be affected by the construction activities.”

In contrast, ten meetings were held with the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), the entity representing eight distinct Indigenous groups (the Okanagan, Upper Nicola, Westbank, Penticton, Osoyoos, Lower and Upper Similkameen bands and representing the Colville Confederated tribes where appropriate – being people who were “divided” by the creation of the international boundary) and approximately twelve meetings were held with the Ktunaxa [Kutenai] people. From these meetings, extensive lists of community questions and concerns about the project were produced, to which the Waneta Expansion Power Corporation was compelled to provide responses. The responses provided may not have adequately addressed community concerns, but the engagement of the ONA and the Ktunaxa in the environmental review process resulted in the documentation of their concerns and the developer’s response to them, while very little mention of other public input is evident in the document. I don’t think this difference in participation can be explained by the legal requirement to consult with Indigenous peoples about such projects, since similar requirements exist for consultation with non-Indigenous populations potentially affected by proposed projects. I don’t yet have an explanation for this disparity, and I may never find one, but it leads to some great potential research questions.

To produce the report sections concerning Indigenous use and occupation of the lands around the proposed dam expansion project, the Environmental Assessment Office and the Waneta Expansion Power Corporation consulted with both the ONA and the Ktunaxa Nation. In addition to the knowledge sought from Indigenous community members, the Waneta Expansion Power Corporation hired consultants who provided reports on the history and archaeology of the area that both supported and contradicted information provided in First Nations’ consultations. This particular report demonstrates how some knowledge is granted more credibility than other sources of knowledge – specifically, the report seemingly accepts archaeological evidence (in this case, the lack thereof) over oral history, while also citing Delgamuukw v. British Columbia to state that oral histories are relevant. It’s a bit mind-bending.

The history of Indigenous occupation in the region begins with a vaguely described “prior to 1780” starting point, defining what is considered history in this region as everything that’s happened since the eighteenth century. Paragraphs on Indigenous occupation address the movements of the Sinixt [Lakes] people through space and over time in this region, currently placing them among the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington State and avoiding the issue of consulting with them on the project because the “Province lacks information regarding the Sinixt as to the basis for any claim that there is a communal group in British Columbia which would qualify as an ‘Aboriginal peoples of Canada’ within the meaning of section 35(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982.” At the same time the report dismisses Indigenous claims to occupation of the area over a centuries-long period and skirts possible consultation obligations, it also notes the presence of Indigenous pictographs, place names, fisheries, and fur trade participation – information gleaned from oral histories collected from ONA and Ktunaxa community members specifically for this report. Concluding the section on Ktunaxa use and occupation of the area around the Waneta Dam, the report cites a 2006 study’s conclusion of “joint mutual usage” of the region, a 2004 report stating that there is a lack of archaeological deposits to determine occupancy, and the reports of Indigenous Elders claiming ongoing mutual use of the area for resource harvesting. There is no reconciliation of the contradictions between these reports and the document states in response to a specific Ktunaxa Nation Council query about archaeological evidence in the area that “the Proponent [Waneta Expansion Power Corporation] has received no specific evidence of the Columbia corridor adjacent to Waneta being used by the Ktunaxa.” In the following response, though, the corporation stated that the “absence of archaeological sites in this area could be attributed to a number of factors including low historical use by First Nations, and sites destroyed by past development and/or natural forces.” The possibilities mentioned for absent archaeological data are not further examined. Like I said, it’s a bit mind-bending.

The Waneta Hydroelectric Expansion Project Assessment Report and Comprehensive Study Report is one example of government documents created by the Canadian government and corporations interested in natural resource development that are bountiful sources for historians. As with all sources, these things were created for specific purposes and used in very specific ways – important contextual elements we need to keep in mind if we want to venture into using them. If what my environmental regulator friends tell me is true, few people read the historical sections of these beasts. We may as well give them an attentive audience.

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Stacy Nation-Knapper is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University. Her research focuses on the history and memory of the fur trade in the Columbia River Plateau.

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