This Was Our Valley
January 23, 2020
Review By Douglas Robb
The 2019 edition of This Was Our Valley by Shirlee Smith Matheson and Earl K. Pollon continues a longstanding conversation about the impacts of large dams in northern British Columbia. This story, told in three acts, renders a detailed account of life along the Peace River in the vicinity of Hudson’s Hope over the past one hundred years. Whereas much of the recent writing on this subject has focused on the social and political turbulence surrounding the construction of the Site C Dam (Sarah Cox’s excellent Breaching the Peace(2018) comes to mind), the reissue of This Was Our Valleybegins at a time when hydropower on the Peace was a distant fantasy. This long historical view of life along the Peace (that is, settler colonial life) captures the breathless transformation of the river from a place of trappers and gold-panners to a fully infrastructuralized landscape within the short span of a mere half-century.
Part I of the book is told from the perspective of Earl Pollon and chronicles the life and times of a young man in Hudson’s Hope from the 1930s to the mid-1960s. Over the course of fourteen chapters interspersed with poems, Pollon offers an intimate, if perhaps occasionally disjointed recollection of life along the Peace. Part autobiography, part travelogue, Pollon sketches a series of vignettes that introduce the reader to the landscapes (many now submerged) and the characters (most long deceased) of the river prior to the construction of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam. To the contemporary reader, Pollon’s warm reminiscences feel somewhat outdated in the context of current conversations regarding the trauma of colonialism and industrial extractivism. Yet his recollections succeed in conveying to the reader a deep and melancholic nostalgia for a way of life drowned under the Williston Reservoir.
Part II of the book is told by Shirlee Smith Matheson, and describes the myriad consequences following the construction of the W.A.C. Bennett and Peace Canyon Dams. Drawing together interviews, archival research, and her own first hand experience, Matheson skillfully weaves diverse narratives of labour unrest, natural resource mismanagement, bungled infrastructure projects, geological instability, and Indigenous dispossession (among many others). What differentiates her account from other writing on the industrialization of the Peace River is her ability to contextualize high-level political and economic machinations within the lived experience of local citizens. Matheson sketches a vast and complex geography that could have been better supported by clearer maps and visual documentation, yet she nonetheless provides the reader with a comprehensive account of the impacts wrought by large dams in British Columbia during the latter half of the twentieth century.
Each edition of This Was Our Valley responds to the construction of a new dam along the Peace, and the 2019 reissue offers valuable context and information for the ongoing Site C Dam project. Like previous editions, Part III frames the nucaced and often highly-politicized discourse surrounding Site C through the lives of everyday people who are directly and indirectly affected. While some perspectives are conspicuously absent — what of the construction workers, engineers, or local proponents? — the 2019 edition remains true to the spirit of Earl Pollon’s original project by giving voice to local residents who feel all-too often relegated to the periphery. While the saga of the Site C Dam may be far from over, This Was Our Valley provides essential reading for researchers, activists, or concerned observers who are interested in the social and environmental history of the Peace River and the countless schemes to exert control over British Columbia’s landscapes.
Cox, Sarah. 2018. Breaching the Peace: The Site C Dam and a Valley’s Stand against Big Hydro. Vancouver: UBC Press.
This Was Our Valley. Frontenac House: Calgary, 2019. 424 pp. $29.95 paper.