50th Anniversary of W.A.C. Bennett Dam a cause for reflection by BC Hydro

A photo taken on July 21st, 1967 of the construction of the WAC Bennett Dam, less than two months before the dam was completed. The photo shows large construction vehicles dumping and packing down different grades of sands and gravels to form the different zones of material inside the dam. Photo by Lew Parry, courtesy of BC Hydro.

HUDSON’S HOPE, B.C. — BC Hydro is commemorating a milestone date in its history today, while also acknowledging its negative impacts on First Nations in Northeast B.C.

BC Hydro Regional Community Relations Manager Bob Gammer said that today marks 50 years since construction was completed on the first dam across the Peace River, and the first large dam built in the province. The dam would be named after then-Premier W.A.C. Bennett, who spearheaded the creation of BC Hydro in 1961.

Construction began in 1962 on the dam which, when it was completed, was one of the largest earthfill dams in the world. The dam is 2,000 metres across the crest, 800 metres wide at the base, and rises to a height of 183 metres in height. The dam holds back the Williston Reservoir, the third-largest man-made reservoir in North America. Building the zoned-eathfill dam took five years, and relied on the use of numerous types of earth and rock built up into a pyramid-type shape to form the structure. The dam’s powerhouse was the largest underground powerhouse in the world when it was completed a year after the dam itself was built.

Gammer said that BC Hydro held a small celebration on Labour Day by offering free admission at the dam’s Visitor Centre, along with cupcakes and other memorabilia. On today’s anniversary, Hydro is planning a more low-key event with current and former staff, as well as several workers that helped build the dam more that half a century ago.

Gammer stated that while BC Hydro does celebrate the engineering marvel of the dam, the Crown Corporation also acknowledges the negative impacts on First Nations in Northeast B.C. “The construction of the Bennett Dam was a different time before Aboriginal rights were understood and recognized in the Constitution, and before the Supreme Court had established expectations around First Nations consultations,” said Gammer. “Truthfully, there was no dialogue, there was no engagement with First Nations communities on the construction of the Bennett Dam. So, it’s a dark past. Even our president Chris O’Riley has called it a stain on the history of British Columbia.”

Gammer explained that the dam’s construction destroyed the hunting and trapping territories of the T’say Keh Dene and Kwadacha First Nations. He added that BC Hydro has begun reconciliation with area First Nations when financial settlements with both First Nations were signed in 2008 and 2009. “These do provide some benefit, but it’s just a small step on the path to reconciliation,” said Gammer. “We know that there’s a long way to go, and we’re committed to not repeating the mistakes of the past. We know there are people today that are still hurting from the construction of the dam.”

Gammer added that BC Hydro’s next big milestone is the 50th Anniversary of the G.M. Shrum Generating Station, the facility at the Bennett Dam that provides close to 1/3rd of the province’s electricity generating capacity.