Cheslatta Nation Goes to Court over Kemano

“Alcan is not obligated to spend a penny in the rehabilitation of the Nechako or the Cheslatta system. If Canada and B.C. is not committed, then Alcan is home free.”

Members of the Cheslatta Carrier Nation along with a group of Elders have filed a Statement of Claim with the Supreme Court of British Columbia in Prince George challenging all agreements and licenses granted to the Aluminum Company of Canada (Alcan) by the Canadian and British Columbian governments. These agreements and licenses allowed Alcan to construct and operate the highly controversial series of hydro-electric facilities and an aluminum smelter, known as the Kemano Projects, in north-central BC.

“We have run out of options. The only way to get Alcan Canada and B.C. to account for their actions is through the justice system,” said Chief Marvin Charlie. “We were not consulted in the 1950’s (Kemano I), we were not consulted in 1987 (Kemano II) and we weren’t consulted in 1997, which we now call Kemano III. Nobody was consulted – the farmers, the trappers, the municipalities, the commercial fishermen – nobody! Now we are expected to live with this forever – I don’t think so!”

The Kemano I Project resulted in the flooding of 120,000 acres of the Upper-Nechako Watershed, all within the Cheslatta Traditional Territory, and eventually removed approximately three-quarters of the natural flow of the Nechako River. The Nechako River is the largest tributary to the largest salmon-producing river in the world.

The Kemano II Project, an expansion of the first, was allowed to proceed when B.C. and Canada signed the infamous 1987 Settlement Agreement. In 1990, Kemano II became the first project in Canadian history to be granted an exemption from a federal environmental review process; an action later to be found illegal by a Senate-Commons Committee. Kemano II construction was subsequently halted by Alcan in 1997 who cited poor aluminum markets. In January of 1995, B.C. canceled the Kemano II project citing poor economic projections on behalf of the company.

Last August, under legal threats from Alcan, the B.C. government granted unprecedented rights and privileges to Alcan by signing the 1997 B.C./Alcan Agreement, which is now referred to as Kemano III. The B.C. government declared the Kemano II Project history.

Cheslatta claims that Kemano II is alive and well. With the 1997 Agreement, Alcan, who announced net profits for 1997 at $641,000,000, got everything they wanted and more. “Alcan is not obligated to spend a penny in the rehabilitation of the Nechako or the Cheslatta system. If Canada and B.C. is not committed, then Alcan is home free,” says Chief Charlie.

Since their forced relocation by Alcan and the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) in 1952, the 85 members of Cheslatta live on scattered parcels of land in the Grassy Plains area 175 miles west of Prince George. In 1993, they concluded a long dispute with the DIA over the matter of how much they were compensated for the land and buildings at Cheslatta Lake. With two weeks notice, the people were ‘evacuated’ to higher ground, all of their homes and villages were burnt to the ground and their cemeteries washed into the lake.

Charlie said many band members live today in condemned homes and have high rates of alcoholism and drug addiction. Reclaiming their ancestral homeland is a way for the band to heal, he said.

Since 1956, the Cheslatta river and lake system have been used as a spillway channel to allow huge releases of water to enter the Nechako River below Cheslatta Falls. This has caused massive environmental damage.

The Cheslatta Carrier Nation is expecting widespread support for this court action from many groups including First Nations, municipalities, commercial fishermen, wildlife organizations, environmentalists and others that rely on a healthy Nechako River. The lawsuit seeks an injunction ordering the defendants to repair the damage they have done to the band’s land.

“The fact is the upper-Nechako River and its watershed is owned and operated by the Aluminum Company of Canada,” said Chief Charlie. “And up to now, nobody has been able to do a thing about it. Let’s hope to change that.”