BC Hydro ranks No. 1 in our survey of B.C.’s most influential brands and remains one of the province’s most loved brands. The controversial Site C dam, however, represents one of the biggest tests of that influence in over 50 years of operation
Hydro, because it is owned by the people of British Columbia, has tried to set the gold standard for consultation and community engagement—hiring and training a local workforce and creating institutional capacity in communities across the province. But it’s not something that the crown corporation has always been good at. In the 1960s and ’70s, Hydro built a series of massive dams along the upper Peace and the Columbia River, flooding entire river valleys with their reservoirs. While these projects created the power infrastructure that to this day generates around half of B.C.’s electricity, they also resulted in mass displacement; those displaced in the north included the Sekani First Nations, who wouldn’t receive recognition or compensation until 1977—nearly two decades after the W.A.C. Bennett dam was completed.
In response to the environmental movement of the ’70s and ’80s—and then the emerging body of treaty law—BC Hydro became a lot more responsible. “Social licence fundamentally comes down to that basic level of trust that individuals have that your company is making decisions based on the best interest of the people who rely on it and can be impacted by it,” says Jessica McDonald, CEO of BC Hydro, who started working on the Site C file during her days as one of Gordon Campbell’s deputy ministers.
When Site C consultation began in 2007, Hydro started with the mandate to “foster a two-way dialogue between BC Hydro and Peace region residents, businesses, property owners, communities and Aboriginal groups to ensure we are aware of local interests, issues and concerns.” And the corporation has tried to address those concerns. It has set up a $20-million fund to compensate municipalities for lost tax revenues from the 31,000 square kilometres of prime farmland that will be flooded. Hydro has also held consultations with First Nations groups—at least two of which stand to lose ancestral lands and hunting territory—that the B.C. Supreme Court, in a recent ruling, described as “extensive and conducted in good faith.”
For Ken Boon, who will lose part of his homestead to Site C—including a farmhouse built by his wife’s grand-father—it’s the intangibles that can’t be compensated for. “It’s tough for the people who have lived here a long time or plan to live here a long time. There are real roots here.”