“To C or not to C”: Dam Development in Northern British Columbia

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Editor’s Note: This post is the second in a series titled “Dam Nation: Hydroelectric Developments in Canada.”

The pun is terrible, but Hamlet’s soliloquy about choices and consequences is an apt place to begin a discussion of the controversial Site C hydroelectric dam on the Peace River in northern British Columbia. Construction began in 2015 and the federal government recently signalled its support for the project by approving two key permits allowing it to continue. The $8.3 billion project will have a generating capacity of 1100 MW, making it one of the ten largest hydroelectric dams in Canada.1 Its eighty-three kilometre-long reservoir will flood an estimated 5500 hectares of land, further compromising Indigenous peoples’ hunting and fishing rights as well as the lives and livelihoods of settler farmers, trappers, and guide-outfitters.

Although construction has just started, Site C has a history stretching back more than half a century. It sheds light on how energy choices are structured and how we might understand the consequences of development. Site C’s critics argue that instead of investing in an outdated and environmentally, socially, and economically costly form of energy like hydroelectricity, the province and BC Hydro should develop alternative and cleaner sources of renewable energy.

So what accounts for the persistence and – in Canada – the spread of a nineteenth century technology in the twenty-first? In part, it’s history. Or to put it more precisely, it’s “path dependence.” Originally developed by economists to explain why certain technologies are taken up while others aren’t, the concept has been used by historians to show how the initial choice of technology, be it a certain gauge of railway track or video recording system, constrains the possibilities for change later. Historians Christopher Armstrong and H.V. Nelles have deployed the concept to explain how and why Calgary Power was able to turn the Bow River in Banff National Park into a site of hydroelectric development.

As they observe, Canada stands out for its embrace of hydroelectricity, distinguishing itself as the one of the world’s most aggressive developers and largest producers of it in absolute terms and on a per capita basis. “The hydroelectric religion” came to British Columbia thanks to its modernizing Premier, W.A.C. Bennett, who set the province on its dam path in the late-1950s when it granted Swedish entrepreneur Axel Wenner-Gren concessions to develop the north, including its river resources.2 The consultants for Wenner-Gren’s Peace River Power Development Company investigated fourteen dam sites in 1958, including what would become Site C. Site 3A became the Bennett Dam (1968) and Site 1 became the Peace Canyon Dam (1980).3

Dam Sites on the Peace River-1958-2
Some of the dam sites identified on the Peace by Wenner-Gren’s engineering consultants in 1958. Note Site C. Source: The British Thomson-Houston Export Co. Ltd., Report on the Feasibility of Building Dams on the Peace River, volume 1 (1958)

Path dependence is visible in the rationale for building Site C and the notion of “efficiency” embedded within it. According to BC Hydro “Site C will gain significant efficiencies by taking advantage of water already stored in the Williston Reservoir. This means that Site C will generate approximately 35 per cent of the energy produced at W.A.C. Bennett Dam, with only five per cent of the reservoir area.” In other words, because Site C capitalizes on existing infrastructure – the Williston Reservoir – it can generate more power with a smaller footprint.

Furthermore, and again speaking to path dependence, the province justified Site C more generally by arguing it made more sense to put a third dam on a river that was already developed – presumably rather than damming a “wild” river, particularly one that was used by salmon, like the Fraser. In both environmental terms and in terms of adding to the existing network of generation created by W.A.C. Bennett’s “Two Rivers policy,” it made more sense to build Site C. Indeed, that was how the development of the Peace was first envisaged by Wenner-Gren’s engineers: dams on the Peace would “take care of the Province’s need [for power] for many years without affecting the spawning of salmon” and they would also allow BC to develop the Columbia and “secure maximum downstream benefits from the USA.”4 This rationale was entrenched in law in 2010. In announcing Site C that year, the Liberal government also introduced its new Clean Energy Act, legislation that prohibited further construction of dams at the remaining sites on the Peace as well as the province’s other rivers.5

In its discussions of Site C, BC Hydro makes very little mention of alternative energy. For the power authority and the province, alternatives are, to a large extent, foreclosed by the existing investment in hydro infrastructure. In the current political climate those “heritage assets,” as the government calls them, are even more valuable given its commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In case the public missed the point, BC Hydro rebranded the dam the “Site C Clean Energy Project,” and takes every opportunity to make the case that not only is hydropower green but it’s also “firm,” or uninterruptible, unlike solar or wind power.

In energy policy scholar Nichole Dusyk’s view, “clean energy” in British Columbia has become “a tool to expand both large hydroelectricity and natural gas extraction in the province…. [It] has become a rationale for projects and policy approaches that are reminiscent of the previous century. It offers a clean energy future that looks conspicuously like the past.”6

If Site C is meant to help BC become self-sufficient in green electricity, it also will assist in meeting another provincial energy objective; namely, “to be a net exporter of electricity from clean or renewable resources.”7 Therein lies another possible reason for the persistence of dam building in British Columbia and Canada more generally: provinces sell some of the hydroelectricity they generate to other provinces and to the United States.

To the extent the US has stopped building large hydroelectric dams and has even decommissioned several older and smaller ones it may at least be partly because it can buy power from Canada.8 Could it be that Canada continues to build hydroelectric dams because the Americans need electricity? Is Canada an energy colony of the United States, providing it with clean power while soiling its own nest? Or have I been reading too much James Laxer? Regardless, the point is that in thinking about how energy choices are structured, we need to consider the market for power as well as path dependency; a market that in this case extended beyond provincial and national boundaries.

In addition to revealing how energy choices are structured, Site C also sheds light on the consequences of dam development, showing that they’re historically contingent and can occur well before construction starts.

There’s now more environmental awareness and more awareness of First Nations sovereignty issues and need for reconciliation than there was when the W.A.C. Bennett Dam was built. There’s also more awareness of what the impacts of large dams can be on both the environment and people, locally and downstream.

That awareness extends to governments and power authorities. For instance, in 2009 the province and BC Hydro compensated the Tsay Keh Dene, one of the Indigenous groups displaced by the Bennett Dam. It has also acknowledged the devastating impact the dam had on Indigenous lands and peoples through a new exhibit in the Bennett Dam Visitor Centre entitled “They call it progress, we call it destruction.” It opened in June 2016 – even as construction on Site C continued and the province faced lawsuits from the Treaty 8 First Nations over it.9

But increased awareness of the social and environmental impacts of dam development hasn’t translated into significant engagement with, much less opposition to, Site C. In other words, the changed context in which this dam was proposed hasn’t been enough to shift the path of hydro dependency. In fact, there’s less engagement by the BC public with hydro mega projects now than there was when the dams on the Peace and Columbia were built in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the era of the “Two Rivers Policy” and hydro-nationalism. Instead, to the extent the BC public has been mobilized over energy development recently, it has been in opposition to large fossil fuel pipeline projects like Enbridge’s Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion.

Some of the same forces that have made us more environmentally, socially, and politically aware – the multi-channel universe (do we still talk about that?), the internet, and social media – have, paradoxically, also made us less engaged with issues on the provincial and particularly the local, scale. As much as these forms of communication have provided opportunities for connection, they have also made it challenging for project-affected people like those in the Peace Valley to get the attention and mobilize the support of outsiders.

To scale up their concerns, the people in the Valley and their supporters have tried to connect their opposition to Site C to larger and more global concerns about sustainability and sovereignty: among other things, they argue Site C is not as green as it’s claimed to be; that the electricity generated exceeds demand; that selling the excess to refine tarsands oil contravenes the Clean Energy Act and the province’s commitment to reduce GHGs; that flooding prime agricultural land compromises the possibility of achieving food security and, not least, that it violates Indigenous rights.10

It’s an uphill battle. We can get some sense of the challenges and frustrations of scale politics in the Joint Review Panel’s assessment of Site C. In examining BC Hydro’s case for building the dam, the Panel addressed the impacts on agriculture, one of the central areas of contention locally. While it recognized that the loss of agricultural lands was “highly significant” to the operators of the thirty-four farms that would lose part or all of their lands to the reservoir, the Panel concluded that “the permanent loss of the agricultural production of the Peace River valley bottomlands … is not, by itself and in the context of B.C. or western Canadian agricultural production, significant.”11

Much of the debate over Site C concerns the consequences attending its construction and operation. But even unbuilt, Site C had an impact. Beginning in the 1970s, BC Hydro began buying properties in the Valley, anticipating that Site C would eventually go ahead and that it would need the land. It leased some of it back to people who farmed it with the Power Authority’s encouragement, knowing it had been designated for flooding. By the time BC Hydro launched its first, unsuccessful attempt to get a license to build Site C in 1981, it had obtained approximately 2500 hectares of land on the north side of the Peace River between Hudson’s Hope and Fort St. John for the dam.12

But the shadow of development had darkened the Valley far earlier. Ever since engineering consultants identified a number of dam sites in late-1950s, the possibility of more dams, more flooding, and more displacement had existed. From 1957 on, the province designated land in the Valley flood reserve, creating an “anticipatory geography” of inundation.13

Flood reserve level at Gwen Johansson Home
Flood reserve level at Gwen Johansson’s home in the Peace Valley, 2014. Photo Credit: Emma Gilchrist, DeSmog Canada.

The longstanding possibility of dam building shaped the way people thought about the area and its potential. Whatever relationships they may have had with the land, whatever prospects were embedded in it, the peoples of the Peace Valley have had to contend with another future of someone else’s imagining, whether that was Axel Wenner-Gren, W.A.C. Bennett, or Christy Clark.

As geographer Jonathan Peyton argues, mega projects that are announced and then put aside temporarily or permanently have real material and discursive effects.14 The process of development planning and licensing changed how local people engaged with the land. It forced them to talk about it in the same terms as the experts, to meet their alien and alienating standards, even as they were pursuing very different relationships. As much as flooding, that new way of imagining the land foreclosed possibilities for what it could be, and what they could be. And that’s a consequence that needs to be recognized and reckoned with.

Feature Image: Photo Credit: Emma Gilchrist, DeSmog Canada.


[1] For the dam’s specifications, see BC Hydro, “Information Sheet about Site C,” January 2016. Mining and Exploration lists of Canada’s largest hydro dams.

[2] Christopher Armstrong and H.V. Nelles, Wilderness and Waterpower: How Banff National Park Became a Hydroelectric Storage Reservoir (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2013), 3.

[3] For an overview of the development of hydroelectricity on the Peace, see Meg Stanley, Voices from Two Rivers: Harnessing the Power of the Peace and Columbia (Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 2010).

[4] British Thomson-Houston Export Co., Ltd. and Wenner-Gren British Columbia Development Co., Ltd., Report on the Feasibility of Building Dams on the Peace River, Volume 1, nd [1958], iii. The “downstream benefit” was payment to British Columbia by the US for the increased amount of power that would be generated by the dams on the American portion of the Columbia River thanks to the construction of dams on the Canadian portion.

[5] In announcing Site C, the province made it clear it would be the last dam on the Peace and that no other rivers in the province would be dammed. “For many years, nine other sites have been available for consideration of large scale hydro-electric storage dam projects, including two on the Peace River system. Although these sites have never been part of BC Hydro’s plan, they have remained legal options for consideration. The new Clean Energy Act will change this. It will enshrine in law B.C.’s historic Two Rivers Policy by prohibiting future development of large-scale hydro-electric storage dam projects on all river systems in British Columbia, such as the Liard River system. It will also preclude further dams on the Peace River system other than Site C.” News release: “Province announces Site C Clean Energy Project,” 18 April 2010.

[6] Nichole Dusyk, “Clean Energy Discourse in BC, 1980-2014,” BC Studies 189 (Spring 2016): 77-78.

[7] Clean Energy Act, Statutes of British Columbia, 2010, Chapter 22, Part 1.

[8] For a brief overview of dam decommissioning, see Patrick McCully, “Dam Decommissioning.” The largest dam decommissioning in the US so far occurred on the Elwha River in Washington, when the Glines Canyon (13.3 MW, 64m high) and Elwha (14.8 MW, 33m high) dams were removed. In contrast, the Bennett Dam has a capacity of 2730 MW and is 186m high. Site C will have a capacity of 1100 MW and will be 60m high. On the restoration of the Elwha, see Michelle Nijhuis, “World’s Largest Dam Removal Unleashes U.S. River After Century of Electric Production,” National Geographic online, 27 August 2014.

[9] See News Release: Tsay Keh Dene vote yes to Williston settlement agreement, 2 July 2009, Sarah Cox, “BC Hydro Apologizes for Bennett Dam’s ‘Profound and Painful’ Impact on First Nations at Gallery Opening,” DeSmog Blog, 10 June 2016, and Gavin Fisher, “BC Hydro acknowledges dark past of W.A.C. Bennett dam in new exhibit,” 15 June 2016.

[10] See for instance the Peace Valley Environmental Association, the Peace Valley Landowner Association, and the Treaty 8 Tribal Association’s position on Site C. CBC’s The Current radio program dealt with Indigenous opposition to Site C. See “Site C Dam project betrays Trudeau’s commitment to First Nations, say critics,” 24 August 2016.

[11] Report of the Joint Review Panel – Site C Clean Energy Project, BC Hydro and Power Authority, British Columbia, May 2014 (Ottawa and Victoria: Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and the British Columbia Environmental Assessment Office, 2014), 150.

[12] The BC Utilities Commission held hearings on Site C between 1981 and 1983 and concluded that BC Hydro’s forecasting was flawed and it had not established their was sufficient demand to justify proceeding with the project. On land acquisition, see Lions Gate Consulting Inc. in association with Sunderman and Associates, Canadian Agricultural Strategies, Inc., and JK Solutions, Ltd., Site C Lands: Economic Opportunities Assessment – Impact Assessment, Final Report, January 2002, 6 and 8.

[13] Order-in-Council 2452 from October 1957, as well as subsequent amendments to it, created an area of crown land that is the Site C flood reserve. See Report of the Joint Review Panel – Site C Clean Energy Project, 8.

[14] Jonathan Peyton, “Corporate Ecology: B.C Hydro’s Stikine-Iskut Project the Unbuilt Environment,” Journal of Historical Geography 37, 3 (July 2011): 358-369.

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Tina Loo

Professor at University of British Columbia
Tina Loo teaches Canadian history and environmental history at the University of British Columbia. She's written on wildlife management and the social and environmental impacts of hydroelectric development. Her current project is an examination of forced relocations in postwar Canada.


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