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Kemano Tunnel

The stopping of the Kemano Completion Project is a true people’s victory.

by Gordon Young

In the eighteenth century Edmund Burke wrote that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” In the last half of the twentieth century British Columbia saw evil almost triumph. Montreal-based multinational corporation Alcan Aluminum wanted the Kemano Completion Project, a giant megaproject that threatened terrible environmental damage.

Against this evil stood many good men and women. The threat Kemano posed so violated wide-spread social values that sectors of society often opposed to each other were drawn together into the fight against it. Kemano’s friends were the powerful and wealthy; Kemano’s foes came from the other side.

The stopping of the Kemano Completion Project is a true people’s victory.

M.A.P. Stage One: “Normal Conditions”

Among the most dedicated of Kemano’s opponents were those most directly harmed by the huge project. In 1952 the Cheslatta T’en First Nations people were evicted from their centuries-old homeland to make room for Alcan’s industrial expansion. After four decades of social disruption and personal misery–alcoholism, tuberculosis, violence, suicide and the despair of a people dispossessed–the Cheslatta teamed with the neighboring Carrier-Sekani people to battle the Kemano Completion project.

Mike Robertson, Senior Researcher with the Carrier-Cheslatta first became involved in Fall 1991. “The biggest obstacle we faced throughout this thing was that in order for people to understand the Kemano project we had to turn into engineers and scientists ourselves.

“It’s been called by scientists and politicians the most complex engineering project ever attempted in Canada.”

“We spent an amazing amount of time trying to review and understand a lot of the scientific documents. We understand now how salmon survive as well as scientists do, and we know there’s a lot scientists don’t understand.

Shifting public opinion proved vital in the Anti-Kemano struggle. “At the time they (Alcan) first presented this, opposition was very localized. Being a Northern project, the people down South–the masses–didn’t really want to understand this complex project, because they were still kind of living in the fifties, where Alcan came in with this grand project and provided lots of jobs–they opened up the North. People were still living in that same mentality: of Alcan being a positive corporation.

“When we analyzed this project and how to stop it we took it as our number one strategy to make everyone feel the pain of Kemano. When you identify all the impacts Kemano would have, everyone would be touched.”

Legal challenges brought against Kemano centred on one crucial issue: the need for a comprehensive environmental review. “It was very clear that Alcan would not survive a full environmental hearing–regardless of the politics of the time.”

Alcan withdrew the project in 1984. Though it was a victory worth celebrating at the time, the Natives did not expect the victory to last long. “We knew that Alcan would continue to try to pursue this project.”

When Judge Walsh rules that Kemano must go through a full environmental hearing, and quashed the outrageous 1987 Settlement Agreement. Though her ruling was subsequently overturned, winning the only such exemption in the history of Canada. “We had won that victory and it opened up a lot of eyes down South.”

Catherine Stewart, West Coast Fisheries Organizer for Greenpeace, tells the story of Greenpeace’s involvement in the Anti-Kemano movement. After a 1993 victory in its battle against high-seas driftnet fishing–the United Nations declared a moratorium on the “walls of death”–Greenpeace was free to pursue other fisheries causes. Under Stewart’s direction, the veteran environmental agency turned to the attack against Kemano with a sophisticated publicity campaign that shifted public opinion against the project, pressuring politicians to stop it.

“Using our national and international networks, we started generating awareness outside of B.C. as well as inside.

“We have canvass offices in eleven cities across Canada; I printed fax sheets and information brochures for the canvassers, and they took them door-to-door. We printed about 25,000 postcards to Harcourt and Jean Cretien outlining concerns about the project and asked people to mail them in. We wrote articles for grassroots publications, and local newsmagazines and newspapers, and distributed them both in Canada and the U.S., and we started faxing out information and sending out information through our international offices to alert our supporters in other countries as to what was going on here.

Stewart’s experience as an environmental campaigner taught her what to do to consolidate the effort against Kemano.

“One of the other things that I did was to look at what issues were already being tackled by the movement and the people who had been working on Kemano for a long time. Where were there gaps?

“I identified one of these gaps as being actually going after Alcan–the corporation–and its environmental track record.

“So we researched Alcan’s environmental record in other places where Alcan had operations: Australia, Brazil, Ireland, and other parts of Canada. What sort of environmental behaviour could we track down?

“And, of course, we found that there had been massive violations of existing environmental laws and tremendous environmental degradation as a result of Alcan’s operations. We started publicizing that material–circulating it to the Cheslatta, to other opponents of the project, getting it printed in newspapers, going on radio–getting that information out there.”

Greenpeace broadcast the fear that Alcan might not live up to its environmental obligations over Kemano. “What assurances do we have that whatever mitigation strategies Alcan proposes to prevent damage to the salmon,the people, and so on, would even be adhered to?”

“For example, the company is given a permit to operate its smelter at Kitimat, and is expected by the Ministry of Environment to operate within the terms of that permit–and they don’t! They violate the terms of that permit all the time.

“They’ve been on the province’s worst polluter list eight times; they’re constantly in violation of the standards under which they’re allowed to operate!

“So we pushed the idea that even if the deal did go through, there was no guarantee the deal would be adhered to.”

M.A.P. trigger event — collapse of the Atlantic cod stocks — raises public awareness

It took the disastrous collapse of Canada’s East Coast in the early 1990’s to trigger wide-spread public consciousness that fish stocks could be very vulnerable.

Rivers Defence Coalition Chair Pat Moss noticed the change. “It gave people a sense of just how precarious the fishery could be anywhere. To have it completely collapse like that I think had a real effect on people. It made people think that we can’t go on doing what we’re doing forever.”

Stewart: “By 1993 people were realizing that we had lost the cod–that we had effectively destroyed the cod stocks and that, I think, was just a stunning realization to most Canadians. That a centuries-old fishery could be wiped out… ” her tone turns sharply disdainful “… by human mismanagement and greed led to much more scrutiny: ‘well,what’s happening on the West Coast? What are we doing to our stocks here?’… which created an avenue to push the information about Kemano’s potential impact on salmon stocks and created a much more receptive audience for that message.”

“The destruction of the cod stocks provided a wake-up call that they can maximize the benefit to the industry to the point where there are no fish left! For the first time people were realizing we could destroy a fish stock… That we had the ability to wipe them out.”

BCUC Hearings

The B.C. government responded to the rise in public awareness by appointing a series of public hearings into Kemano. Run by the B.C. Utilities Commission–the body responsible for the province’s power regulation–a three-person panel held hearings in both northern and southern towns. Beginning late 1993 and ending in fall 1994, the hearings formed a focus of public interest and news coverage.

This wasn’t enough for many of Kemano’s opponents. The hearings’ mandate fell far short of a full environmental review. Limited to a study of impacts only on the Nechako river watershed area, it ignored the rest of the Fraser river system. Particularly, it ignored the economically vital Fraser river sockeye salmon–one out of five of these fish use the Nechako. Some of the opponents, notably the Cheslatta natives, boycotted the hearings because the mandate was so narrow.

One group that did participate was the T. “Buck” Suzuki Environmental Foundation, the environmental wing of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers. Foundation director Mae Burrows: “Two things happened in the BCUC: the absolutely callous and outrageous mandate which said that fisher interests were not to be part of the investigation–that was a real catalyst.

“Also, very early on in the BCUC there were attempts to filter and select what information was going to go forward at the BCUC hearings.” But official attempts to suppress full democratic debate proved a poor strategy that defeated its own purpose. “When both federal and provincial governments tried to keep a lid on the thing, it acted instead as a catalyst to blow it wide open!”

“These are the opportunities we need to look for. They’re not necessarily negative moments–they can be moments of opportunity. What the media likes is conflict.”

Stage six — increase in public awareness — radio broadcast campaign


The anti-Kemano movement won a vital convert when radio broadcaster Rafe Mair learned of the Kemano controversy mid-1994. Once drawn on side, the former Social Credit Environment Minister hammered relentlessly at Alcan and Kemano on his weekday morning talk show, reporting daily on the progress of the Kemano hearings.

Finally the masses of B.C.’s lower mainland were being reached. Mair recalls: “It had considerable impact in terms of educating the public because there’s a large audience.

“I think there was another dynamic in play as well. I think the vast majority of the lower mainland audience were just like I was prior to looking into the matter. They sort of felt that Alcan had done their homework and that because there hadn’t been a huge due and cry in the local media–it must be okay.

“Which is sort of the way I looked at it. I think, perhaps, they were shocked when I started to tell them what I had read and what I had found out.”

“I think it caught people’s attention, because–although they hadn’t thought about it a lot–they had been satisfied in the back of their minds that this was probably okay, and were surprised to find that someone thought it wasn’t.”

Interacting with his phone-in audience, Mair sensed the shifts in public opinion. “I certainly think that the audience was substantially opposed to it by the time the Harcourt government announcement came down.”

Stage eight — continuing the struggle — where do we go from here?

The story of Kemano is not over. Many vital issues remain unresolved.

With the negation of the 1987 agreement, we lapse back to the conditions of the agreements preceding it, and these are also inadequate to protect the Nechako and Fraser river ecosystems.

Under the framework agreement just signed, if B.C. is to honor its obligation to provide 285 megawatts of electricity to Alcan, the province may need to dam something else. At the least, if the new deal holds, B.C. hydro ratepayers will pay a monthly tithe to Alcan for half a century–a legacy of an NDP government that may last but a single term in office.

Mair: We have to make sure that we get the levels of the Nechako back up to what they should be. Alcan is still entitled to extract that water and use it for other purposes.”

“First and foremost, we have to make sure that Alcan doesn’t get any substantial compensation because the deal was a bad one long before this government’s getting involved in it.

Kenney Dam cold water release facility

That a cold water release facility be built at Kenney Dam was the BCUC Commission’s most prominent suggestion. How, if, and when it is to be built is still an open question. The facility is needed to control river temperatures and flow rates, and to stop the periodic flooding that continues to bar the Cheslatta T’en from some of their native lands.


With the capitulation of the NDP to Alcan in the lately-signed framework agreement, politicians across the Canadian political spectrum have shown that none of them can be truly trusted. Creatures of the expediencies of re-election, short-sighted politicians will sell our environment out to corporate greed.

But power lies in the hands of the people. With enough public awareness to bring public opinions strongly to bear on environmental issues, the politicians will respond. It remains the responsibility of the citizenry to scrutinize its leaders if social good is to prevail.

In the words of Joseph Marie de Maistre, “Every nation has the government it deserves.”

The role of DFO in Kemano

Where was D.F.O.? The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans is supposed to protect Canada’s fish stocks. That’s their job: conservation is stated by law as their first priority.

So how did the travesty of Kemano occur? In spite of its own scientific studies showing how environmentally risky Alcan’s plans were, D.F.O. was willing to gamble with twenty percent of the Fraser River’s sockeye salmon.

The politicisation of the civil service. Stewart: ” For years it seemed to me DFO was fighting the province. If you look at the history of the project it looks like throughout the early eighties that scientists at DFO were doing everything they could to ensure adequate water flows and fight the destruction of the Kemano watershed, fight the potential impacts on the Fraser sockeye and do everything to not allow the company to virtually get away with murder.”

“But the Mulroney era ushered in political ties to the company that steamrollered right over DFO science.”

“We need to re-evaluate the way we manage fisheries.” So far management has been for the benefit of the industry “Maximize the benefit to the industry, not to the fish.”

Suzuki Foundation Director Mae Burrow deals daily with fisheries management bureaucracies–though she approves of the way federal and provincial fisheries can scrutinize each other, she feels that DFO is no longer effectively filling the role it is assigned. “I think DFO has become dysfunctional.”

Alcan conspiracy theory

Did Alcan really want to complete Kemano?

Or was Alcan’s posturing through court actions, hearings, and negotiations just a brilliant facade that brought Alcan exactly what it wanted: escape from a megaproject that would have lost money, and undeserved compensation from the government that ordered the project stopped?

That’s the essence of a Kemano conspiracy theory: an underlying theme, unsuspected by most of the public, accepted by many informed observers, lurking beneath the surface of this convoluted issue.

Greenpeace’s Catherine Stewart links the suspected shift in Alcan’s motives to world geopolitical events. “I think Alcan wanted Kemano II for a long time–until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“That had a major impact because when the Soviet Union dissolved and the military-industrial complex in Russia ground to a halt, all of the aluminum that was being manufactured by the Russian government that was going into weaponry and planes, basically being purchased by the military–was put out onto the open global market.

“Which led to a collapse in aluminum prices, and that, in turn, led to what the aluminum industry insists is not a cartel, but was–more or less–a cartel, in order to determine global prices and to reduce production and try to stabilize the aluminum market internationally.”

Around 1990-“At that point the price of aluminum on the global market had gone into a downward spiral. Alcan no longer had any motivation to construct a second smelter at Kitimat.

“Then it became a question of power sales–and possibly, compensation.

Independently, broadcaster Rafe Mair sees supporting clues it Alcan’s own actions. “There’s a lot of evidence to show that Alcan, as early as 1983, had been indicating that it didn’t think it could make any money out of Kemano II because of the price of electricity they’d negotiated with B.C. Hydro back in 1978.

“The rest of the way was an attempt to make the government look like they were wrecking the project so that Alcan could get compensation.

Mair, a former lawyer, finds Alcan’s moves after the B.C. government stopped Kemano particularly suspect. “If Alcan really thought they had a good case, why wouldn’t they have claimed for Specific Performance of the Contract? That’s a logical thing that anyone would do…you could go before a judge and say ‘Here’s the contract, order them to perform the God Damn thing!’ But that’s never been part of it.”

“I think, quite clearly, it’s a play for money by Alcan.”

If so, it’s a play that seems to be succeeding. In early July the N.D.P. government and Alcan signed a “framework agreement” for compensation for the canceled project. The deal looks bad for the B.C. taxpayer. Paying Alcan off with 285 megawatts of free electricity per year for up to 70 years, the deal would, at worst, give Alcan the equivalent of more than $6 billion dollars in compensation for a $1.4-billion project.

4 Responses to “The Struggle to Stop Kemano II: Voices from a Successful Social Movement”

  1. John Hummel says:

    When I worked at Cheslatta, the key turning point in the struggle against Kemano II was the leak to Cheslatta of thousands of pages of Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) documents by concerned DFO scientists.We then alerted the world about the dangers of Kemano II. We then contacted, educated and united with everybody who might be impacted e.g. other First Nations, the entire west coast fishing fleet in Canada and the USA, non-native communities, every environmental group in Canada, unions, church groups etc. The result? The Billion Dollar Kemano II megaproject was cancelled.

    Link to Film about the Struggle: http://westcoastnativenews.com/documentary-no-surrender/

  2. Mae Burrows says:

    Oh yes. I remember introducing Rafe Mair to the Kemano issue and rallying thousands of fishermen up and down the coast to build a movement against the completion. And I remember introducing Catherine Stewart to the Kemano issue and inviting her and Greenpeace to speak at many meetings of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union. I also remember always including the Cheslatta in any talk I ever gave on the issue. And I remember the River’s Defense Coalition and Pat Moss and the hundreds of people throughout the Fraser basin dedicated to stopping Kemano 11. Apart from my son and husband, defeating Kemano 11 was what I woke up for everyday of my life for 7 years.

    I made dozens and dozens of FOI requests to DFO and brought forward the “dissident scientists” from DFO to the BCUC
    . Many are my friends to this day although some have passed on.

    Quite the history you’ve constructed here!!!!!!!

    Way to go John!
    As the Aboriginal health Council advises:
    Honour those who have come before

    All the best, Mae

  3. Rafe Mair says:

    Both John and Mae are great heroes of mine – I learned a hell of a lot from both of them and am very proud they each, in their own time and way, had the patience to teach me.

    If either of you see this, God bless you both. Thanks to you, if nothing else, the Cheslatta at least had a sniff of justice.

  4. John Hummel says:

    It was a very unusual type of battle. Hundreds of groups and individuals, each working independently (with no overall organizational structure to the movement) and yet each in their own unique way working in common cause. It was more of a revolution than a battle. I guess one of Cheslatta’s main contributions was to make sure that all allies and media friends were updated almost daily on the latest research on Kemano II so they could more effectively move on the issue in their own independent and unique ways. Every time we received a leaked Kemano II document, we shared it with everyone we thought might be impacted. Constantly reaching out to more and more groups. Often, we shared raw documents with groups and media so they could do their own analysis. We then shared those analyses throughout the network of media and allies. Anyway, enough said. It was quite an amazing group effort by many concerned citizens.

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