Court case on Nechako River moves to Prince George – Prince George Citizen

Court case on Nechako River moves to Prince George - Prince George Citizen
B.C. First Nations sue to have Alcan take down the Kenney Dam
Members of the Saikuz and Stellaten First Nations gathered at the steps of the Prince George courthouse on Monday morning in advance of five-days of testimony about the impacts of the construction and operation of the Kenney Dam on the Nechako River.

Its part of a 200-day trial that began in Vancouver last month after a lawsuit against Rio Tinto and the federal and provincial governments was launched. The plaintiffs are seeking a form of declaratory relief should they prove their allegations against the company.

“Its important that part of the trial be heard in Prince George so that Elders and members of both communities can attend and observe the legal proceedings,” Saikuz Chief Priscilla Mueller said in a statement.

“The Nechako River sustained our communities and many others for thousands of years. Very few British Columbians know how construction of the Kenney Dam devastated the Nechako River, its fisheries and our way of life.”

Located about 185 km west of Prince George, the Kenney Dam was constructed in 1952 and created the massive Nechako Reservoir which provides hydro power to Alcans aluminum smelter in Kitimat in northwest B.C. The lawsuit claims that the 1987 and 1997 Settlement Agreements entered into by Alcan and B.C. and Canada are not defenses against the First Nations, based on constitutional grounds.

In a pre-trial decision issued in February, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Nigel Kent said the plaintiffs may still “confront formidable obstacles” when it comes to proving their case, noting the defendants have been “actively involved in creating downstream enhancement of the Nechako watershed area.”

Rio Tinto diverts about 70 per cent of the water out of the Nechako River each year to generate power for the smelter and sale of electricity to BC Hydro.

Two B.C. First Nations suing one of the world's biggest mining companies over a northern river say they want Rio Tinto Alcan to dismantle a major dam built 67 years ago.

"They can take down the Kenney Dam and restore everything to the way it was in 1952," Stellat'en Chief Archie Patrick told CBC on the steps of the Prince George courthouse. "We're seeing it to the end."

The Saik'uz and Stellat'en First Nations are in court to press their lawsuit against Rio Tinto Alcan, B.C., and Canada.

They contend that a dam built to generate hydro power and smelt aluminum at Alcan's Kitimat plant also reversed the river's course and diverted 70 per cent of the water flow for industrial use.

The First Nations say it's caused more than half a century of environmental degradation, harm to sturgeon and salmon, and damage to constitutionally protected Aboriginal rights. 

"I'm the fourth generation of my family who's been fighting for the rights on the river. We want it restored," said Saik'uz band councillor Jasmine Thomas.

But she says that's changed dramatically since the government granted Alcan a water licence, and the company built a dam that reversed its flow.

It's led to a sharp decline in salmon stocks. Sturgeon, a giant fish from the dinosaur era, is now an endangered species in the Nechako.

Rio Tinto Alcan uses the river water to power its aluminum smelter on B.C.'s north coast and to sell hydroelectric power.

Its water diversion has created almost 2,000 jobs at its smelter, making it one of the biggest employers in northwest B.C.

This week, court hearings moved to Prince George, so that local elders could give testimony and listen in on the proceedings.

On Monday morning, as nine black robed lawyers took their seats, seven Indigenous elders in full regalia smudged the judge's bench, waved spruce bows and sprinkled eagle feathers on the red carpet.

Betsy William, an 81 year old elder from Saik'uz, was the first to take the witness stand.  She described her family and nation's fishing practices before the Kenney Dam was built.

"All the time — salmon," William told the court. " [You] just catch so much, it last til the next run."

The court hearings continue in Prince George this week, before returning to the Vancouver courthouse.

But communications and community manager Kevin Dobbin said the company has previously tried to resolve the matter directly with First Nations and prefers to settle the case out of court.

Dobbin also said Rio Tinto has always abided by all laws and requirements for using water and for  protecting fish.

Betsy Trumpener is an award-winning journalist and author. She's been covering the news in central and northern British Columbia for more than 15 years.

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