Site C Dam leaves First Nations’ Cultural Heritage out in the Cold

A short-piece researched and written in January of 2015, as part of an Advanced Reporting class at Langara College: cultural genocide, structural racism, industrial development and archaeology. 


Sunrise over the Peace River (Photo by Mel Edgar)

Driven by forestry, mining, hydro and pipeline construction, archaeology in BC is booming.

And while heritage legislation mandates archaeological assessment ahead of development, according to experts boom times can also be a bust when it comes to preserving and protecting the past.

In BC, this leaves much of First Nations archaeological heritage out in the cold. Literally.

In the Peace River Region archaeology excavated ahead of BC Hydro’s much protested Site C dam — stone tools and animal bones older then Egypt’s pyramids— are housed in a steel shipping container outside the Fort Saint John-North Peace Museum.

In the shadow of the museum’s “landmark” 136 foot high oil derrick, the shipping container is now home to the bulk of North Eastern BC’s First Nation’s archaeological finds: objects showing continuous human habitation in the region stretching back over 12,000 years.

“Given everything we do as a museum, archaeology does tend to fall by the wayside,” said museum curator Margaret Longworth, of the space originally founded in the 1960s to celebrate the region’s pioneer origins as well as oil and gas industries.

Longworth said uncounted numbers of finds have arrived on the museum doorstep since 2009, including some packaged in large postal bags.

Running on grant money and donations, Longworth said the museum’s had few resources and almost no space to allocate to archiving and storing the archaeological finds.

Longworth is not alone trying to manage the wealth of archaeology uncovered in BC as part of cultural resource management (CRM) archaeology.

At the University of British Columbia’s much vaunted Museum of Anthropology, professor David Pokotylo describes the situation as a “repository crisis.”

“There is no long term plan about where all this stuff should end up, or who should pay for it,” said Pokotylo. “This is all putting archaeology in BC is at risk.”

A director at UBC’s Archaeology Lab, Pokotylo said the crisis means he has had to turn many archaeological finds away — although ideally the lab holds finds in public trust or in trust for First Nations with a territorial claim.

“If we don’t have room for the finds,” said Pokotylo, “we should leave them in the ground where they are.”

At work in North Eastern BC, archaeologist Anthony Russell has heard this argument before.

With a PhD in archaeology and field experience from multiple countries, Russell is thoughtful about the impact of development-led CRM work here in Canada.

Speaking on the condition that his employer and the companies it contracts for remain anonymous, Russell said he is aware CRM is geared towards getting industry results rather than preserving or protecting finds.

“Sometimes developers just don’t see the value in archaeology,” said Russell. “They think if we find something, they might not be able to do what they want.”

The need to drive projects forward is really at the crux of the matter, said Russell. Because developers shoulder the cost of archaeological investigation, he said excavation is seen as simply another cost of doing business and little thought is given to what happens to excavated finds.

“This is the dark side of archaeology,” said Richard Hutchins, an anthropologist at Vancouver Island University whose research looks at conflicts arising from what he calls, “archaeology for profit.”

“CRM archaeologists like to think they are doing something great and good,” said Hutchins. “But really they are destroying archaeology and making it easier for development to go forward.”

To Hutchins, the destructive outcome of BC’s archaeology has sinister implications, particularly in Fort Saint John where over 300 archaeological sites are slated to be flooded after construction of the Site C dam.

“It’s cultural genocide, the destruction of a peoples’ culture.”


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