In Hydro Lillooet hopes for a trust
The Bridge River Lillooet Trust initiative may be one of the economic keys to Lillooet’s future
By Robyn Cubie
More than a year ago activists and politicians in the Lillooet area requested one year’s profits from B.C. Hydro’s Bridge River system be used to set up a special trust for the region. Despite the fact they have received no direct response, the group is still confident they will succeed, on the basis of fairness and a hunch that the issue will be prominent in the lead-up to the next provincial election.
"We do not want grants and handouts," says Joyce Harder, chair of the Bridge River Lillooet Trust initiative. "Putting this trust in place will make a difference to the longevity of this community. It will let local people decide where the money will go to best benefit the people of this area."
For many people living in the district of Lillooet, the issue of compensation for B.C. Hydro’s legacy of dams and environmental damage is a serious one. The proponents of the trust scheme want one year’s net hydro profits from the Bridge River system — a figure estimated to be between $20 million and $60 million. The idea is to use the interest earned off this initial nest egg to fund local economic initiatives, community projects and environmental works. The groundwork for this proposal was completed in May 1999, with the presentation of a comprehensive report to various government bodies.
On a recent morning drive from Whistler to Lillooet, the steep, forested mountain passes were ablaze with the orange, red and gold of fall, broken only by the occasional snow-capped peak or tumbling waterfall. Upon approaching Lillooet however, the spell was broken with the sight of the hulking hydro works that were first thrust upon Seton Lake some 50 years ago. Carved out of a scarred landscape of earthworks and concrete structures, Lillooet fits neither the description of sleepy country town nor small industrial outpost. After passing the chipped-paint trailer homes that dot the entrance to the town and crossing the railway tracks onto Main Street, you find yourself in a hodgepodge of family hotels, knick-knack shops bursting with Halloween deals and friendly character cafés. The local thrift store was advertising a $1 jean special and the blue cigarette smoke drifting from the locals’ bar suggested some were already calling it a day. It’s not the place to find a yuppie bar, GAP or McDonald’s.
To some, the Bridge River-Lillooet region with its 3,670 residents is a reminder of a quieter, more traditional way of life. However, Lillooet is a town living past its heyday; things look a bit rundown, many people just hang around. It is a sign of the times for any town reliant on the shrinking forest industry. The closure of the Ainsworth sawmill in 1998 was a huge blow for the community, with the direct loss of more than 50 jobs and a subsequent record number of homes for sale in the district. Unemployment levels since June 1999 have exceeded 35 per cent, according to statistics from the Lillooet Economic Development Commission.
Lillooet’s situation has improved with the recent arrival of a new value-added plant and a biotech lab but no scheme has managed to fill forestry’s big shoes. Hopes are pinned on Al Raine’s proposal to build the nearby Cayoosh Resort, but that project has its own obstacles to overcome.
Under this climate, it’s not difficult to see why the District of Lillooet turned its sights on the provincial government to foot the bill for a B.C. Hydro trust fund. After all, it’s been done before. Similar trusts have already been established by the provincial government over the past five years, including the Columbia Basin Trust covering all of the Kootenays and the Nechako Trust in the Vanderhoof-Kitimat area.
Central to the argument for the Bridge River Lillooet Trust is reparation for what has been lost. Completed in stages between 1927 and 1960, the dam and reservoir system sprawls over an area of nearly 1,300 square kilometres. Beginning about 60 km north of Pemberton, it ends at Lillooet in the Fraser Canyon. It comprises three dams (LaJoie, Terzaghi and Seton) with their respective reservoirs, four generating stations and two 4 km tunnels through Mission Mountain that divert water from the Carpenter Reservoir at Terzaghi Dam, to Seton Lake.
The Bridge River System was at one time the largest power producer in British Columbia and helped fuel the economic expansion of the province in the 1950s and ’60s. Today it provides approximately seven per cent of B.C. Hydro’s annual power supply and, perhaps more importantly, its variable response outflows enable it to cater to demand fluctuations in the lucrative U.S. market.
These benefits however didn’t come without cost. A bountiful salmon fishery, along with wild moose and deer populations, were severely affected. Key native and non-native cultural and historical sites were also lost and a significant timber resource was submerged at the time of the hydro development.
Almost as central to the argument for the trust is what could have been. Tourism, fishing and recreational opportunities are cited by trust proponents as potential employment options thwarted by Hydro, with flooding and environmental damage being left in their place.
Sitting in the foyer of her family-run business, the Reynolds Hotel, Joyce Harder explained why the trust is needed in the town. "There are so many areas in a small community that are constantly looking for just a little bit of seed money and there is simply no place to get it."
However, she said it is crucial that any funding schemes are handled locally, not through the provincial government. "Any time you put a program through any form of government it becomes three times as costly and tied up in so much red tape that the local volunteers, who are normally the ones running it, simply burn out."
Lillooet’s mayor is an extremely hospitable former mechanic named Kevin Taylor, who moved to the area in the late 1970s. Taylor closed the door on his business four years ago to take up the mayoral robes for a community he is very proud of.
On the 50 kilometre journey out to Carpenter Reservoir, snaking along the infamous Road 40 with its 300-metre sheer drops to the Bridge River, Taylor explained the lay of the land.
"We know that they pull a lot of money out of this area. It’s their cash cow in as much as they can regulate their systems and sell a lot of this electricity to the States at a very good profit margin," he said.
After a 45-minute trip through some truly stunning backcountry, we arrived at Carpenter Reservoir, home to the biggest dam on the Bridge River system, the Terzaghi. The dam’s most eye-catching feature is a large colourful fish motif painted on its side — a testament to the 1998 legal settlement between B.C. Hydro and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The arrangement, which was officially activated last August, reinstated a permanent waterflow to the river below the dam for the first time in 50 years.
Above the dam stretches the 55 km blue/green waters of the Carpenter Reservoir. Ideally it should be a place for recreation, or at least fishing of the landlocked salmon. However, the tree stumps clearly visible above the waterline reveal the legacy of lack of foresight. The reservoir is unusable for recreational purposes.
Russ Oakley, the director of Area A for the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District and member of the trust initiative committee, met us at Carpenter Reservoir.
"What we had previously was a pristine valley that was a habitat for many animals and fish," he says, gesturing into the wind. "What we have now is a reservoir with a fluctuating water levels, so sometimes you have dry dust storms and other times big piles of debris that floats up. Under this water lies what would have been a prime timber producing area, plus the historic mining town, Minto City."
Oakley says he got involved with the committee because he wanted to see people in the area get a fair deal and receive some benefits in exchange for these losses.
A community with arguably the largest stake in Hydro’s future dealings in the Bridge River Valley is the St’át’imc (Lillooet) First Nation. As the original inhabitants of the Fraser and Bridge River regions, the St’àt’imc are cited extensively in the report, for the losses hydro development has caused them in terms of fisheries, wildlife and cultural meeting areas. In particular the report highlights the six bands of the Upper St’àt’imc who were most affected by the flooding works — the T’itt’kit (Lillooet), the Sekw’el’was (Cayoose Creek), the Xaxl’ip (Fountain), the Ts’kw’aylaxw (Pavilion), the Chalath (Seton Lake) and the Xwisten (Bridge River).
Ironically, First Nations communities have declined any involvement with the trust proposal, with some bands even opposing the initiative on the basis it could derail their own compensation talks with B.C. Hydro. This stance is significant, considering First Nations make up between 45 and 50 per cent of Lillooet’s population.
Garry John, chief of the Seton Lake Band, said native communities are more entitled than anyone to any benefits that accrue from the Hydro works.
"Hydro has made a lot of money here from the developments within our territory and these trust talks could weaken our position," he says. "A lot of people (in) Lillooet were not living here originally and now just see an opportunity to jump on the bandwagon."
Cayoose Creek Stl’atl’imx Chief Perry Redan says nine of the 11 St’at’imc communities have been working with B.C. Hydro since 1990 on a plan to compensate aboriginals and improve their future living conditions. He said at this stage it would be unwise to concentrate on the trust initiative and risk neglecting the much bigger issue at stake.
"I am uncertain what type of resources are available (from the provincial government) on a yearly basis but the costs we are going to recognize down the road are going to be a lot larger than what can be provided by the trust initiative," Redan says. "If everyone relied on the trust to come up with a solution there would not be enough money in the bank anyway to make changes."
Redan added there is also the issue of duplication.
"B.C. Hydro is already working with the B.C. government on water use planning processes and the Bridge Coastal Compensation Program that almost mirrors the trust initiative."
However, Mayor Taylor said many aboriginals do support the trust proposal, with around 70 natives signing the committee’s local petition on the issue. Five hundred signatures have been collected so far. He said First Nations communities and the trust committee are targeting different providers and therefore should be able to work together.
"They are targeting B.C. Hydro — or what was General Electric — about the initial impacts, while we are going to the provincial government for a share of Hydro funding," says Taylor.
He adds he wants to advance Bridge River Valley communities as a whole and is frustrated by the "them-and-us" mentality prevalent among some First Nations groups.
"This should be an opportunity to see the bridging of communities by working together on projects such as enhancing fisheries and helping local businesses," Taylor says.
Russ Oakley said the trust would be a win-win situation for everyone if it goes ahead. "The native groups will have the same opportunity to apply for funding through the trust as any other community group."
Back in Lillooet, local support for the trust proposal seems clear. Bob Vannatter, the owner of Virtual Help Electronics on Main Street, said investment in staff training and business support would help build the town’s economy.
"Some months and quarters (the economy) is really poor and some it’s great," Vannatter says. "I think getting some kind of trust fund could level out those times. With better employees you could branch out your business, along with interest-free loans, grants, you know, stuff like that."
Likewise, Tom who waits tables at Dina’s Place Greek restaurant, said the extra cash-flow would help the community.
"It’s good for growth, good for B.C. and Lillooet and the surrounding communities. Lillooet is a nice little community but it could do with a little push, some growth."
Christine, who works at New Beginnings Society, second-hand store said it could also go someway towards fixing up the infamous accident road alongside the Carpenter Reservoir. "I think that the proposal is a good idea," she says. "Hydro needs to give us something back because they have had so much trouble with their road along their lake at Carpenter."
A chance encounter at the German bakery revealed a number of local policemen who were celebrating the last day of work for the former St’at’imc Tribal Police Chief, Harry McLaughlin. He said the trust would provide a good contingency plan for the area. "I’m not totally familiar with the program but anything that will boost the economy and bring in any revenue is important for this area," McLaughlin said.
Likewise RCMP Sergeant Butch Van Acker said there are many areas that could benefit from some cash injections. "I’ve seen it operating in other areas and it works well. It’s a good source of financing for the community."
Outside of Lillooet, reaction to the trust proposal has been fairly muted. B.C. Hydro’s official position is neutral; that compares to the deafening silence emanating from the provincial cabinet. Yale-Lillooet MLA and Minister for Transport and Highways, Harry Lali, said he is "one thousand per cent behind the trust initiative."
However, Lali also admitted he has not personally read the committee’s report on the proposal, nor is he aware of it going before cabinet, despite being posted to several ministers.
Joyce Harder admits the lack of response from government is disheartening but says locals will ensure it becomes a major election issue for the Yale-Lillooet riding. Likewise Kevin Taylor predicts the trust will become a key political rallying point for the electorate, along with the Cayoosh ski resort proposal.
Whether the entire Bridge River Valley community pulls together on this trust issue remains to be seen. However, on the drive back home along Duffey Lake Road there is evidence of a far more divisive controversy brewing. In the fading light, the brightly painted signs near Cayoosh turnoff give a clear message from First Nations communities that the resort is not wanted — a position in direct contrast to many of the area’s other residents. The cool evening air is enough to get the protest flags fluttering and get me scurrying back to my van — all signals point to the coming of winter and the hardening of local attitudes.