Redress for Bennett Dam ordered
Indian Claims Commission rules in favor of Chipewyan
by Anne-Marie Jennings
NNSL (Apr 27/98) - The Indian Claims Commission has ruled that the federal government must compensate the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation for damage caused by construction and operation of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam in northern B.C.
In its ruling, the commission stated that all aspects of daily life had been affected by the construction of the dam.
"It is more than the First Nation's treaty rights to hunt, fish and trap for food that have been affected," the report said.
"The First Nation's very way of life and its economic lifeblood were substantially damaged as the government of Canada, armed with the full knowledge of the ecological destruction that would ensue, did nothing."
The Bennett Dam was built during the 1960s by B.C. Hydro. When the dam began operating in 1967, the downstream flow of water on the Peace River filled the Williston Lake reservoir. Within four years the impact on the ecology of the region was already profound.
Ottawa rejected the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation's claim, filed under the Specific Claims Policy in 1991, arguing it does not have power or discretion to intervene in the project, and so could not mitigate or prevent damages.
But when the Indian Claims Commission reviewed the claim, the commission found the federal government did have a legal obligation to protect the environmental integrity and economic value of the land, water, and wildlife of the Peace-Athabasca Delta and the Chipewyan Reserve.
ICC co-chair James Prentice said the federal government should have worked to protect the region in the face of the dam's construction.
"The federal government had significant interests in maintaining the Delta for the benefit of future generations," Prentice said.
"By declining to take reasonable steps to prevent or mitigate environmental damages to the Delta, the Crown has forsaken the legitimate interests of all Canadians and certainly the treaty rights of the Athabasca Chipewyan."
The Athabasca Chipewyan Reserve lies completely within the Peace-Athabasca Delta, a designated World Heritage Site and one of the largest freshwater deltas in the world.
When the Reserve was first set aside in 1935, the area was recognized as an exclusive hunting, trapping and fishing area for the First Nation because of its rich environment and abundance of muskrat, game, fish and birds.
It is also the source of the water that flows North into Great Slave Lake and the Mackenzie River.