Site C dam opponents could be bringing in their last harvest

Peace Valley farmers Ken and Arlene Boon are the face of agricultural protest against the Site C dam. With a deadline to leave their land looming, their farming days could be over years before the waters rise

On a drizzly September afternoon, Ken and Arlene Boon stood on a hillside overlooking the Peace River, detailing what they’ll lose to the Site C dam.

As president of the Peace Valley Landowner Association, representing dozens of farmers and ranchers who will be affected by the dam’s 83-kilometre flood zone, Boon has given this tour many times.

At the bottom of the hill on a bend in the highway is a market garden filled with fruit, vegetables and a rain-soaked stand of sunflowers. Along the river, a pair of teepees stand in a hayfield, leftover from a culture camp Treaty 8 First Nations members held this summer. On top of one of the benchlands that line the area, known as Bear Flat, is the Boons’ log home construction business and homestead, where Arlene's family has lived for three generations.

Now, with a highway realignment around the proposed reservoir set to bisect their land, the Boons are facing the bleak prospect of bringing in their last harvest and ultimately losing their home.

“We’re losing everything,” said Arlene. “We’re looking at having to start over.”

Since Premier Gordon Campbell revived the idea of a third Peace River dam in 2010, the Boons have been the face of agricultural opposition to Site C. In the lead-up to the government’s decision to green-light the project, the Boons attended countless hours of review panel hearings in Fort St. John. They’ve addressed TV cameras on the steps of the Vancouver court house after legal challenges. Last winter, they helped lead a protest camp that blocked construction for weeks—a stand that eventually earned them and six others a court injunction.  

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Ken and Arlene Boon farm grain crops on their farm in Bear Flat. - Jonny Wakefield


But after years of fighting, the Boons received their official buyout offer from BC Hydro late last month.  

“Seeing an offer and knowing there’s a deadline, it is disturbing,” Ken Boon said. “And it brings a new reality to where we’re at. It’s a little hard to take.”

While the Boons have nothing in writing, their lawyer says BC Hydro hopes to have them off their land by the end of the year. The dam is scheduled for completion in 2024, but sections of Highway 29 between Fort St. John and Hudson’s Hope need to be realigned above the flood reserve before the river is diverted. BC Hydro wants to begin rebuilding eight-and-a-half kilometres of highway through Bear Flat early next year. When contacted, however, Site C spokesperson David Conway would not give a specific date by which the Boons must leave.

The first highway crews appeared on the Boons’ property this summer.

First, it was geotechnical workers with drilling rigs to test the soil and rock for the roadbed—creating a line of boreholes across the property just metres from the Boons’ home.

The archaeologists came next. Parts of the yard have been transformed into a dig site, with square-metre sections cordoned off with pink and yellow tape. The dig has turned up hundreds of pieces of chert, a flaky, obsidian-like rock used by the region’s early residents for tool making. Some of the arrowheads tested positive for buffalo DNA—additional evidence that the Peace River valley was a trading hub for plains and coastal First Nations.

“There’s a reason why the homes are all on this stretch along Bear Flat,” Ken said over coffee at their kitchen table. “It’s because it makes sense to build homes on these benches. They all have good springs, and we’re not disturbing good farmland. That’s the same reason the archaeologists are finding so much here—because it’s been a desirable place for man to live for 10,000 years, and Hydro wants to put a road right through it.”

Now, the Boons are dividing time between harvesting their crops and finding a new place to live.

Since BC Hydro first proposed Site C in the 1970s, farming in the valley has been, in part, an act of defiance. BC Hydro and the Crown own 93 per cent of the land in the flood reserve, which has driven down land values and discouraged large-scale agriculture in the valley. According to the Joint Review Panel appointed to scrutinize the project, agriculture in the valley generates just $220,000 a year. Those who do farm along the Peace enjoy long daylight hours in the summer, rich alluvial soils and warmer temperatures than farms at higher elevations around Dawson Creek and Fort St. John.

Around 30 residents of the valley will be directly affected by Site C, according to BC Hydro, either by highway realignment or the flooding itself. Of those, ten will likely have to move from their homes or rebuild them elsewhere on the property. BC Hydro says it will pay “fair market value” for the land—a concept which Ken said is practically non-existent in an area that has, for decades, been set aside for a reservoir.   

The Boons are intent on keeping up the fight against the dam. They say it’s an unnecessary, outdated mega-project that will destroy good farmland and infringe on First Nations treaty rights. BC Hydro, meanwhile, says its electricity system will face an eight per cent shortfall in capacity in ten years without Site C.  

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Ken Boon walks past an archaeological site on his property, part of mitigation work on the Site C dam. Archaeologists have turned up hundreds of pieces of chert, a flaky stone material used for tool making by the region's first inhabitants. - Jonny Wakefield

Whenever the prospect of BC Hydro’s buyout comes up, Ken talks about buy-back clauses, if a court case or change in government derails the project. He said he hopes he’ll never see a cent of the money.   

But the first summer of work on their property has already taken a toll. Arlene’s mother, who lived in a converted school house on the property, recently moved to an apartment in Fort St. John to escape construction.

If the Boons are forced from the property, they have options to stay in the valley on other family land. But if the river they love becomes a reservoir, would they want to?
 
“Every direction you look here, these hills are anticipated to slide (into the river)," Ken said. “We won’t know for many years what this valley is going to look like. It might be just a real ugly sloughed-in slough. So we’re being expected to make decisions now without knowledge of what it will look like. Would we really want to stay in the valley?”

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