Text by Ana Simeon
Photo by Don Hoffmann
The Peace River valley, a place I love, is being stripped and excavated to build a hydroelectric dam. This is happening in the far north-east of British Columbia, a ferry ride and two days’ drive from my home on Vancouver Island. Ever since construction permits were confirmed by the new B.C. government in 2017 I’ve noticed how I shy away from even thinking about the Peace. I have to steel myself to read the news. Two of my friends up there have so far narrowly avoided being evicted to make way for a highway realignment, and another friend, an Indigenous woman, still has a potential lawsuit hanging over her because of her participation in a blockade near the would-be dam site. Whenever I speak to them it’s like a deep dive to a painful place, an underwater rock. My daily life bubbles and froths like rapids around this submerged rock; sunlight sparkles off the surface of the water and this is enough for each day. But every now and then I am compelled to dive down to the rock. I must remember and fully feel the love and grief.
Grieving the Peace
Last July the West Moberly First Nation invited all who feel connected to this place to attend a Feast for Grieving the Peace. They made it clear that the grieving wasn’t about the dam itself: that was still being resolutely fought against in court. Rather, the grief was about what was currently happening to the river in preparation for the flooding of the valley. The deliberate cutting of huge cottonwoods bearing great eagle nests all along the banks. The stripping and dumping of uniquely fertile topsoil that could have fed the whole region. The exclusion of First Nations people from places that had provided food, medicine and spiritual comfort since time out of mind. The razing of river islands where beavers built their lodges, and deer and elk sheltered to give birth. The expropriation and eviction of farm families.
About halfway between Hudson’s Hope and Fort St. John, the Peace makes a wide bend around Bear Flats. Before expropriation, Bear Flats was owned by my friends Ken and Arlene who leased the upper field to a market gardener, and grew hay and oats in the lower field. In years past, my husband Tom and I used to camp there. There is an old beaver lodge at the confluence where a small creek joins the river. It’s a special place for bears too, because the wide, shallow flats make it an easy swim across (for a bear). We loved sitting there of an evening to watch the sky and listen to the river. Often a beaver would come out to potter around the creek confluence. Just being there, one feels closely held at the great river’s heart; and at the same time stretched to the utmost distance, part of the whole sweep of the valley from west to east, as far as the eye can see.
Giving Back to the River
After the Feast, a number of us gathered at Bear Flats to participate in a ceremony called the Global Earth Exchange which is about giving gifts of beauty to a wounded place. When Tom and I arrived, Bess, the market gardener, was already there with her husband and their 3-year-old daughter. The little girl was being very solemn about picking just the right flowers to give to the river. I noticed the mother’s gaze as she followed the child’s movements. It was as if her face, her eyes, the lines of her hips and bosom all folded into a big body-smile for the little girl. Somebody brought a basketful of wooden toy boats left over from a boat race (a community fundraiser) for us to decorate and offer to the river. People fanned out to collect rocks and driftwood, and pick wildflowers and beautiful wild grasses with waving tassels.
We stood in a circle at the riverbank. I felt shy. I didn’t know any of the others, except Tom, and it didn’t feel like a cohesive group. I was supposed to say a few words to get us started but I doubted my ability to inspire and guide people to a place of depth and meaning, the way the Indigenous elder had done the year before. As if “I” or anyone could “make it happen”! But as more people joined the circle with beautiful and unusual bouquets and artwork, I let go. I had expected to feel grief and sadness but I didn’t. I felt joyful and happy to be in the presence of the river again. The sheer mass and power of the flowing water echoed through my whole body. I felt awe. No human force could stop this river’s forward movement – in 200 years’ time all three dams would be gone and the Peace would still flow on. A constriction in my chest eased and I felt comforted. When I looked around the circle, I saw joy and gratitude mirrored on many faces around me.
A couple of people wadded a few steps into the water, tentatively, as the bottom was slick clay and it would be easy to slip. The little girl released her boat, but it kept swirling around in the shallows instead of floating off with the current. An older guy challenged the little girl’s dad to jump in the water. Whooping and hollering, they both did, and swam out to release all the boats into the main current. We looked on as the flower-decked flotilla floated quietly downriver.
That Special Light
A thick bank of clouds had been building upstream from us. Sifted sunlight streamed down onto the water in a “cathedral window” effect. Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled, again and again. We were getting ready to disband when 20 more people showed up. We formed a bigger circle and were just doing the introductions when the skies opened: such a downpour! We ran to the cars, laughing.
Later that evening, sitting outside our cabin on a promontory on Ken and Arlene’s property, Tom and I gazed at the river aglow in the last rays of sunlight, the whole vast landscape subtly illuminated in that special light of a northern evening. Peace enveloped me, and I sat for a long time with gratitude to and for the river’s great presence and power.
29th of December, 2019