Members of Saik’uz and Stellat’en First Nations, as well as supporters and allies, rallied on the front steps of the Prince George Courthouse for the Nechako River.
‘Rally for the River’ took place this morning (Nov. 18) before testimonies were heard in a major court case taking place in B.C.’s northern capital.
“The Saik’uz and Stellat’en communities have gathered here today in the territory of Lheidlil T’enneh in the Prince George Courthouse to bring our case against Rio Tinto Alcan for the construction and operation of the Kenny Dam that was built in 1952,” says Saik’uz elected councillor Jasmine Thomas.
The Saik’uz and Stellat’en First Nations launched legal action against Rio Tinto Alcan, the Province of B.C. and the Government of Canada last month.
A 200-day trial began in Vancouver and will continue in Prince George this week with five days of testimony.
“This dam was built in a time when it was illegal for our people to gather as we are today and share drums and hire lawyers to represent us in the court system,” says Thomas.
“We asked the court to see if they were able and willing to travel to Prince George where many of our communities can access so it was a way to bring our community members, our Elders, our knowledge holders and our witnesses to a place where we can travel shorter distances.”
The court case centres on the impacts of the construction and operation of the Kenny Dam on the Nechako River, its fisheries, and Saik’uz and Stellat’en constitutionally protected aboriginal rights.
Alcan diverts approximately 70 per cent of the water out of the Nechako River each year to generate power in Kemano, B.C. for the Rio Tinto Alcan aluminum smelter in Kitimat for the sale of hydropower to BC Hydro.
“We are experiencing major cumulative environmental and social impacts to our landscape specifically to our Nechako River which translates in our language as the great river,” says Thomas.
“We are fighting for the very life of the Nechako River itself. I’m the fourth generation of my family to be fighting for the rights of our river and the rights of our people as well. Specifically for the Nechako, it is imperative that we see the river restored to a state that can support the biodiversity that was once in the Neckaho river and support the revitalization of our communities as well.”
Stellat’en Chief Archie Patrick says they don’t want to have to go through this whole process but are seeing the case through to the end.
“Basically we want to restore some of the ways things were,” says Patrick. “It may not be possible to do it completely. We are open to that."
In a news release, Saik'uz Chief Priscilla Mueller said "We've been clear from the start that this court case is about restoring the fisheries and overall health of the Nechako River. We've also said that our Aboriginal rights were violated in the late 1940s when Canada and B.C. gave away water rights to 70 per cent of the water-flows in the Nechako without consultation or approval to do so."
She says Saik'uz First Nation has never called for the Kenny Dam needs to be dismantled as part of a legal outcome or settlement.
The trial in Prince George will be observed by Elders and members of both communities before legal proceedings return to Vancouver.
Editor's note: This is an updated version of the story that has been edited to provided clarification and additional comments from Saik'uz Chief Priscilla Mueller.