The Kwadacha community has been suffering the effects of the unapproved dam project for 50 years. Image courtesy of Lantern Films.

By: Alison Wick, Arts Editor

Kendra Strauss, director of SFU’s labour studies program, described the W.A.C. Bennett Dam as one of many contemporary resource projects where “wealth [is] generated through dispossession.” In her introduction for the screening of Kwadacha by the River, Strauss talks about the realities of resource exploitation projects — of who benefits without loss, and who loses without benefit.

Kwadacha by the River is a 20-minute documentary about the W.A.C. Bennett Dam project and its impacts on the Kwadacha nation and community. The dam was a massive energy engineering project in the 1960s in northern B.C. that involved damming and flooding the Peace River. The area affected is as large as France.

The screening was held at the Vancouver Public Library’s Central branch on Tuesday, June 18, and was put on by SFU’s labour studies program, department of sociology and anthropology, department of english, and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. 

The event, Strauss continued, is a result of her and her colleagues participating in the Decolonizing Teaching: An Integrated Seminar Series and Grants Program. She says that the distribution and circulation of this film came up in post-seminar discussions as a concrete way for them to use their institutional privilege to create space for Indigenous Peoples and their experiences. The evening was comprised of some introductions, the screening, and a Q&A discussion about the film, the dam, and the many other resource exploitation projects like it.

The film mixes archival footage, personal interviews, animation, and images to tell the story of this dam, the flooding it created, and the damage it has caused. Opening with stories and images of how the river was before the flooding and its importance to the Kwadacha people, we come to understand the short timespan of this project and its destruction. This is very recent history. The river as it was before is living memory, as is the ignorance and ill intentions of BC Hydro.

When a river is flooded, a lake is not created — an area is flooded. The film shows how these are two very different environmental changes as the “lake” created by the flooding is unusable. The water is dangerous, full of debris, and so big that it actually changes the weather. The fish from the lake cannot be eaten and animals drown in it because it is too large and treacherous to cross.

Elders and community members also recount the lack of consultation and notice that was given to them concerning the project. Some people had to evacuate their campsites while others returned from trips to find their vehicles and houses underwater. The flooding buried traditional traplines, plants and medicines, grave sites, and more under metres of water that was never meant to be there.

“We never got nothing out of it, just suffering,” says one elder at the end of the film. 

“The lake, it changed a lot of lives and we’re still feeling it today,” says another. 

The film ends by showing the facts that, initially, BC Hydro promised that the community would receive free power from the project, but this promise has never been fulfilled. The community is today powered by a diesel generator, which they pay BC Hydro for.

The short film was actually funded by BC Hydro, Lantern Films co-founder and film director Dave Shortt informs us. BC Hydro was updating the dam’s visitors centre and approached the production company to create a film for the centre. Although the company was skeptical of the project, they ended up negotiating with the electricity company to make the film an equal collaboration between Lantern Films and the Kwadacha Nation. They even secured that the final words and decisions about the film would rest with the Kwadacha community, meaning BC Hydro had no creative control over the film. The short documentary could thus be a true reflection of the perspectives and experiences of the Kwadacha community.

The community was involved at the filmmaking level as well. During the Q&A, Shortt and community member Cathy Warren talk about how the film’s animated sequences were created by youth at a community high school during animation workshops. Mitchell McCook, the third speaker on the panel, who works for the Kwadacha Nation, also expressed the collaborative and community centred nature of the project. Rather than going into the community and extracting information, the production gave skills and power to the community.

In the discussion following the film, direct comparisons are drawn to projects like the Site C Dam. The conclusion is that these projects follow the same trajectory as the W.A.C. Bennett Dam: being approved and built without Indigenous consent or proper consultation, benefiting big corporations, and harming the Indigenous communities whose unceded territories these projects exploit and profit from.

The short film is an accessible, compelling, and vital piece of filmmaking that tells a story most British Columbians don’t know about but are deeply connected to. The evening itself was a timely discussion about how the Canadian government and resource companies have yet to truly learn and change from their past mistakes.

Kwadacha by the River will be available to take out from the SFU Library soon. You may find it in our W.A.C. Bennett Library stacks in July.