On Feb. 29, 2016, Justice Bruce Butler of the British Columbia Supreme Court granted BC Hydro an injunction to remove protesters from the Site C dam project near Fort St. John, B.C. Opponents of the dam – local Peace River farmers, indigenous people, and other environmentalists — have been camped at the site since December, trying to stop B.C. Premier Christy Clark’s plan to build another dam on the river. Opponents argue that the dam is unnecessary and would destroy farmland and wilderness in one of the province’s most fertile watersheds.
It isn’t the first time that B.C. governments have tried to destroy the Peace River Valley. Thirty years ago, as the right wing government of Premier Bill Bennett attempted to push through a plan to build the Site C dam, I went to Peace River country to interview one of the leaders of opposition to the dam. The story below appeared in Toronto’s This Magazine and Vancouver’s New Directions in 1985. It might still be of some interest to contemporary readers. As they say in the journalism business, I stand by my story:
FORT ST. JOHN — Leo Rutledge, age 74, fur trapper, big game guide, grain farmer and environmentalist, wears a khaki twill shirt with pearl snap buttons and a western string tie. With his vigorous wave of grey hair, hawkish nose, and slightly hooded eyes, he bears a resemblance to one of my favourite movie actors, Robert Mitchum.
Out in the parking lot of this northeastern British Columbia airport, on a mid-October morning, 1985, Rutledge hands me the current issue of the local Alaska Highway Daily News. “Fort St. John’s future is in the cards, and it appears the deck is stacked in the city’s favor,” burbles the local editorial publicist. “This little city could well be on the brink of a boom the like of which has never been seen.”
A familiar list is ticked off: anticipation of increased oil drilling, dreams of liquified natural gas to be shipped to the Japanese, and of course, ever since the chief local politician, B.C. Premier Bill Bennett, casually mentioned it about six weeks earlier at the end of summer 1985, the prospect of building another dam, the Site C, on the nearby Peace River. Visions of sugarplums, jobs, construction, and real estate transactions dance before the boosters’ eyes.
“So, people here,” I venture, “are looking forward to this sort of stuff?”
“They’re sitting here with bated breath, waiting for anything to happen,” Rutledge replies. “They don’t give a damn what happens to the country. It’s badly overbuilt from the last boom.’
I’ve come up here, a thousand kilometres from soggy Vancouver, to see the suddenly endangered Peace River. But first, in order to understand the river at all, it’s necessary to see the place and the people who would just as soon destroy the river. “This is redneck country,” Rutledge snorts as we get into his mid-size sedan and head off for a Friday noon tour of “Fort St. John, Energy Capital of B.C., Pop. 13,360.”
Just behind that Chamber of Commerce billboard boast at the edge of town, there’s a sizeable motel complex of at least 150 units. It never opened. Now it’s boarded up. “Things started going downhill and a lot of people got burned,” Rutledge notes. The last bust inaugurated a still ongoing recession, and “things went into a hell of a slump here. Not because the country isn’t any good, but because it got overbuilt hopelessly.” It happened elsewhere, too. “Cold Lake, Fort McMurray, Grand Prairie and god knows how many others got into the same thing.”
On the other side of town, Rutledge drives slowly through whole ghost neighbourhoods. Row upon row of uninhabited new houses, lawns overgrown with tall yellow grassweed, and sheets of plywood nailed over the windows and door openings. “It’s not a has-been,” Rutledge observes laconically, “it’s a never was.”
Of course, that’s not about to deter the cheerleaders of the next boom, which is always just around the corner. When Premier Bennett, in the fourth year of his not exactly lightning-swift resuscitation of the provincial economy, declared that construction on the mothballed Site C dam project could begin just as soon as microwave toaster users in Los Angeles gave the word, boom fever in Fort St. John was rekindled.
At the time of his announcement, Bennett was in the town of Revelstoke, B.C., throwing the switch that marked the ceremonial opening of an 1,800 megawatt, $2 billion hydoelectric dam, which took eight years to build, and is second only to the capacity of the dam at the headwaters of the Peace named for the premier’s father and former premier, W.A.C. Bennett.
“The days of dams, their construction and their contribution to the B.C. economy, rather than being over, never looked brighter,” enthused Bennett. Naturally, there were a few loose ends to be tied up. The B.C. Utilities Commission had held hearings on Site C a few years earlier, in 1982-83, and rejected B.C. Hydro’s application to build. Leggy California had yet to offer a long-term contract to buy B.C. power. Oregon-based Bonneville Power Authority, which sends B.C. energy over its Intertie system, had yet to authorize more transmission. Just completed Revelstoke dam already represented surplus beyond any domestic needs. But, hey, don’t sweat the details.
In fact, the issue is not such technicalities, though they would be debated at length through the autumn. The issues, rather, are the use of the earth, human generations, time. It’s not the sort of framework of discussion easily understood by a government of over-developers. Having piled up their fortunes by building motel complexes and shopping malls, assembling blocks of commercial property and running up the value of paved-over land, the middle-aged white men who comprise the current decade-old conservative provincial cabinet are not especially sensitive to what we used to call “nature” (before we called it the “environment”) nor, for that matter, to culture, civilization, cosmology. It never occurs to them to ask whether the Site C dam is a good thing. When someone like Leo Rutledge questions that assumption, they’re perplexed.
These bottom-line loving, high-tech advocating, eminently pragmatic souls have been plagued throughout the year by an unpredicted upsurge of curious controversies that make little sense to them. In the spring, it was indigenous people on Vancouver Island telling them they couldn’t chop down the 1,500-year-old cedars on Meares Island. Then more aboriginals and environmentalists protested incursions into the Stein Valley watershed wilderness in central B.C. And one day, right out of the mist, just as the government was about to test-spray a poison called Garlon along the Skeena River in northwestern B.C., on the islands in the middle of the river there popped up a collection of locals and churchfolk and natives and whatnot, goddammit, standing there in the way of the spray-plane and progress.
That’s not the worst of it. There’s South Moresby in the Queen Charlotte Islands. Before you know it, you’ve got Haida Indian elders in button blankets being carted off by the Mounties, the federal environment minister swooping in on a helicopter with a proposal to turn the “Galapagos of the North” into a national park, and Canada’s self-proclaimed national newspaper running lead editorials suggesting that the premier of all Lotusland is a yokel. To top it off, Premier Bennett, on the advice of his election strategists, has flapped his arms like a raven and declared that he’s not about to turn over B.C. “lock, stock, and barrel” to no Indians. But a Vancouver Sun poll says that 65 per cent of the citizenry wants the government to negotiate aboriginal rights with the natives rather than stonewalling them, and furthermore, a healthy majority of the law-abiding populace approves Haida acts of civil disobedience. There are moments when I find myself experiencing a twinge (but only a twinge) of compassion for honest conservative incomprehension in the face of these strange doings.
I’m attracted to the Peace River because it’s one of those disputes easily put on the backburner. Through the autumn, while the standoff on the Charlottes commands national attention, Site C schemes are relegated to tiny notices in the business pages of the press about protocol visits between the chairmen of B.C. Hydro and Bonneville Power, both of whom are conveniently named Johnson.
In deciding whether or not to keep the Peace, the matter is not dramatized by the presence of romantic and dignified natives, ancient grievances, or claims of national heritage or virgin timber. It’s simply a question of whether we’re going to flood one more perfectly life-sustainable valley in the name of purportedly providing a stopgap in our power sales to the Americans until we get around to damning the last of our river valleys — the Stikine, Iskut and Liard Rivers. It’s a question not many people pay attention to. Leo Rutledge has. Maybe you have to know the river. He’s known it for better than sixty years.
In the centre of Fort St. John, we stop to do some errands before setting out along the Peace. Substantial Edmonton-style hostelries — the Pioneer, the Alexander Mackenzie Inn, others — are interspersed with tacky one and two-storey prefabs. In the Overwaitea lot, guys in black Toyota Mirage pickups roll in for weekend shopping with a 2-metre German shepherd dog or Honda Fourtrax parked in the longbox. It’s depressingly familiar. I’ve lived in similarly ambitious outposts along the Skeena.
While he goes in to pick up groceries and beer, Rutledge leaves me with some literature about the last time he fought to keep the Peace. That was a couple of years earlier when the government and local boosters combined in a last-ditch bid to build Site C before they were washed over by the realities of the impending economic recession.
The best item is one of Rutledge’s own contributions to the debate that should have ended two years ago. It’s a fine bit of raillery in a full-page ad taken out by the Peace Valley Environmental Association that skewers the phoney frontier: “. . . a local milieu caught up in pseudo-veneration — everything from towns and streets, place mats and tourist trap trinkets, to the good name of its intrepid explorer Alexander Mackenzie — so absorbed in its own huckstering, it apparently couldn’t care less about the destiny of the river, the Peace, that made an explorer’s historic forays possible.
“Then there is the phone book’s clutteration of Peace this and Peace that. Traders all, newly arrived and now come to borrow the river’s good name to trade upon. Beyond lending them a land’s time-honoured name, what does a great river, the Peace, mean to them? Damn little!” snorts Rutledge’s manifesto, with honed contempt.
He also has a word for the waverers. “There is no such thing as an opinionless stand on damming the Peace,” Rutledge reminded them. “All must clearly understand that to destroy the remainder of the Peace Valley bottom is an ‘only once in a lifetime’ irreversible decision,” warned the river’s spokesman.
At the bottom of the heap of documentation is a copy of the B.C. government’s Executive Council Order 1843 of November 1983. It decrees that the B.C. Hydro “energy project certificate applied for [to build Site C] be refused.” It’s signed by the very premier who has once again declared his backing for the power scheme.
You can’t really see the Peace River from Highway 29 until you’re about 25 kilometres outside of Fort. St. John. As we’re gliding toward it, in Rutledge’s car, I’m curious about the seeming contradictions between fur trapper-big game guide and radical environmentalist.
“When I was 18 I thought I would go north trapping,” Rutledge recalls, “into the Northwest Territories, into the barrens.” Of Scandinavian parentage, he’d been living in the Peace River country with his mother since 1922, when he was eleven. At an old fur post called Peace River Crossing, Alberta — about 400 kilometres downstream from where we’re riding now — there was a Hudson’s Bay boat that took you into the fur country. When he got off at Hudson’s Hope, a tiny fur post beyond the one at Fort St. John, he decided to “look around . . . and I sort of struck root,” Rutledge adds with a faint smile, as if nodding to the irony of that casually fateful decision in 1929.
“Once I was here, there was nothing else to do except trap.” The trappers went out in the fall and didn’t come back until spring. “You were out there for months at a time by yourself,” he says. “You were totally alone, never saw any humans, so you lived pretty close to the earth.”
It’s hard to imagine spending four, five months at a time by yourself, snowshoeing through the mountains with only the company of pack dogs.
“Takes a little getting used to,” Rutledge allows. “But you know, it’s funny. Nature sort of compensates you. My people, as I remember, always revered nature. You know, you don’t mutilate things unduly as you go along.”
Rutledge pauses to point out the turnoff onto the Alaska Highway. We take the road marked by a sign that says it’s 105 kilometres to the W.A.C. Bennett Dam.
“So the fur was the basis of the whole economy,” Rutledge continues. In the Upper Peace Valley he trapped marten, beaver, fox and lynx (the latter is locally pronounced “link”). Then the Depression hit at the beginning of the 1930s. “Everything went to ratshit then.” The small wave of settlers who had come off the dried-out prairies into Fort St. John were in trouble. “Things were really grim for people who couldn’t take to the woods. The ones who could were better off because fur never did drop to be totally valueless.”
Below us, the land stretches out into farm fields. We’re at the beginning of the valley. The river is down there. You can catch a gleam of it, here and there, in the northern afternoon sun.
Going down into the valley, we pass a sign declaring, “Farmland, a precious resource.” The Peace Valley environmentalists had erected a number of signs during the 1983 Site C debate warning people about the dam, but the rednecks either tore them down and dumped them in the bush or took a power saw to them. “Then one of our members decided, well, we won’t say anything about Site C and the dam, we’ll just say, ‘Farmland, a precious resource.’ And by God, nobody touched it,” Rutledge chuckles.
“They’re willing to admit that much.”
“Yeah, I think so.” But the argument of the would-be dam builders is always that it’s not a very large amount of farmland that’s going to be destroyed. And anyway, they’re not going to flood all of the valley, only the bottom land. “They take the same attitude with timber,” Rutledge points out. “Well, it’s just a few acres, they say. But that’s the way everything goes to hell,” he says, with sudden sharpness. “It goes to hell incrementally. Somewhere along the way, you’ve got to draw the line, otherwise you’re going to end up with nothing.”
I’d been put on to Rutledge by Cliff Stainsby, a long-time Vancouver environmentalist. Just before I’d left for the Peace, Stainsby had rolled out some maps and reminded me that farming, forestry, tourism — the industries that the government loves to publicly tout — are all dependent on valleys. And yet in this “sea of mountains” called British Columbia only five per cent of the land is arable. “The valleys are the backbones of the regions,” Stainsby said.
“Not that many valleys are left in B.C.,” I echo, thinking of Stainsby’s remark.
“You’re damn right,” Rutledge says with some heat, “there aren’t that many left that are capable of sustaining people and that can be productive.”
We’re standing on a lookout above the Peace. The dam, if it’s built, will be just outside of Fort St. John. It’s the kind known as a “run-of-the-river” facility. That means, instead of a huge artificial reservoir, such as the one on the Bennett Dam, the entire channel of the river, 80 kilometres, from Fort St. John to Hudson’s Hope, will be partially flooded. It’ll be enough to eliminate most habitation and all human productivity from the valley.
“A valley such as this has life sustaining capabilities,” Rutledge argues. “There’s food here, there’s shelter, there’s warmth here — wood to burn and so on. That portion that would be flooded could sustain people — forever — and a good many people, unless they decide they’ve got to have a couple or three Lincolns in every garage. But if they want to live modestly, and yet well, it could sustain a lot of people. I know. I know what can be done here.”
Before we go up for a look at the Bennett Dam, we stop at Rutledge’s farm to drop the groceries off. It’s on the river we’ve been slowly traveling alongside of through the afternoon, in an area called Farrell Creek, just east of Hudson’s Hope. Above the highway are the newly-turned fields where the wheat has recently been harvested. This year Rutledge leased the acreage out to one of his nine grandchildren.
As we arrive, his grandson Paul, a 25-year-old in grease-stained blue jeans and with curly hair spilling out from under a cap, comes in from one of the small grain silos on the property. As he confers with his grandfather, I’m introduced to Rutledge’s wife, Ethel, and her afternoon visitors, two sisters born in the valley who have been friends of Ethel’s since their teens. In the living room, a big ranch-style window overlooks a couple of tiers of fields that run down to the river. Ethel came up the Peace on the same boat that had brought Rutledge shortly before. They met, marriage soon followed, and then a half-century of kids, winters, grand- and great-grandchildren.
On the highway again, heading to the Bennett Dam, I’m still curious: isn’t there a conflict between killing animals other than primarily for food and being a river-protecting environmentalist?
After a decade of hard times, the price of fur gradually recovered by the time World War II broke out. Then the Alaska Highway was punched through, which produced a certain amount of business spinoff in Fort St. John. When the American hunters began arriving, Rutledge had already eased into the game guide business, packing trophy hunters into the wilderness in search of Stone sheep, a species unique to the area.
“In the beginning here, you had your choice,” Rutledge says. “You either hunted or trapped, or else you got the hell out of here. As far as we were concerned, whether we draped furs over m’lady’s shoulders or hung trophies on her husband’s wall, it didn’t matter a good goddamn to us. We were doing it to live. Of course, you can argue, but is it necessary to do this now, in this day and age?” He sighs. “This is a complicated thing,” says the man who is still an associate of the provincial guides’ organization as well as a director of the Sierra Club. “It’s not that damn simple.”
At the top of the Bennett Dam, built in the first great burst of hydro development in the mid-1960s, the Williston Empoundment sprawls out, 640 square miles of it, flooding the Upper Peace. We each drink a Blue, which Rutledge had brought along for us, as we look out over what had once been Rutledge’s trap line, now under water. “I’m the one that traveled it winter and summer, and I’m the only man alive now that did. Now it’s all gone.”
Once you’ve seen one multi-billion dollar, 2,000-megawatt dam, Rutledge observes, you’ve pretty much seen them all. When dam building first began on the Peace and Columbia Rivers in the 1960s, local people were uncertain as to what to do, if anything. Two decades later, they understood “progress” well enough to know when to oppose it, as Rutledge and others had at the Site C hearings two years ago. Trappers turn into protectors.
Was it because the environmental arguments had some impact that the B.C. Utilities commissioners turned down the dam builders? “No,” says Rutledge flatly. “They live in another world.” The dam didn’t get built then because the boom went bust. This time around, the premier has been careful to announce that there won’t be any public hearings when the bid to build Site C is reconsidered. After all, the hearings have already been held, the premier pointed out with curiously twisted logic.
While we were standing up there, various roiling waters moving below, as I’m trying to sort out what is the river, the reservoir, and the dam’s flow, Rutledge began telling me an anecdote, the beginning of which I half-missed. It was about some guy, the name slipped by me, canoeing down the river with a fairly large party of boats and natives, a man so stubborn he wouldn’t listen to reason. He insisted on going through some impassable white-water patch instead of portaging the party down to the next navigable stretch. “He damn-near killed them all,” Rutledge remarked, “when they should have portaged over through there.” He pointed out a dirt road going up a hill, and mentioned that he had built the road himself with a grader, and I think Rutledge said he’d done it in 1934, though I may be wrong on the date. “He was just too-damn pigheaded,” Rutledge said. He made it sound as though he were talking about a neighbour who’d had this near-mishap recently, and it was only at the end of the story, that I realized, with a mental double-take, that Rutledge had been telling me about Alexander Mackenzie’s journey through here to the Pacific Ocean in 1793. He had spoken so familiarly of Mackenzie that I’d thought it had happened just the other day.
Going back to the farm, we followed the river’s sheen in the late afternoon. I wondered if Rutledge still knew a lot of old-time trappers from around here. “The ones that aren’t dead,” he replied. “Most of them are dead.”
“Is death more on your mind as you get older?”
“I never think much about it,” Rutledge says, “beyond that I’ve got a lot to do yet.”
“Maybe only philosophers worry about it,” I allow. “Now that I’m middle-aged, I’m more interested in how people in their 60s and 70s see their lives.”
“Well, it’s got something of its own to offer,” he says. “I think that every part of my life has been the best part in its own way . . . but only in its own way.
“So you might ask, What’s its own way? You get slightly different values. For one thing, I’m sure as you go along, you value the upcoming generation more. I think that’s logical, isn’t it? You’re easing out. Why shouldn’t you be valuing the ones that are easing in? Continuity. That’s the way I feel about it, right or wrong.”
And the dam?
“What’s the time frame? That’s the question. If it’s just for here and now, our generation, then it doesn’t matter what we do.” Rutledge sweeps the valley with his gaze. He intends to fight the new Site C proposal just as he fought the last one, but he doesn’t have illusions about the odds. “I hate to be so negative, but they’re going to exploit it as long as they can, as long as she’s there and when it isn’t there no more, then we’ll drown in our goddamn filth I guess.” After a pause, he adds, “Of course, I don’t think it’ll be the end of the world.”
Before 7 a.m. the next morning, the Peace River’s pearly sheen slides past Leo Rutledge’s farm. A sliver of daytime moon hangs over the frosted bottom land as I move through the white-barked poplars. At the river’s edge, I pocket a smooth grey pebble. The mist rises from the water’s surface, meets the incoming fog, slowly socking in the valley, as I watch. It was explorer-businessman Alexander Mackenzie’s watery path in 1793, and it was the river a young trapper and environmentalist traveled more than a half-century ago. Here, the question of time-frame seems perfectly straightforward.
Mar. 2, 2016, Berlin. [Leo Rutledge 1911-2005.]