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'Uncertainty sucks': Workers voice concern as Site C future in limbo

Families' livelihoods on the line in review ordered for controversial $9-billion dam, says union representing 700 of its 2,500 employees.

Jessie Cook, 26, commutes to Fort St. John from Kelowna to work at the construction site for BC Hydro's Site C Clean Energy Project dam in B.C.'s Peace Valley near Fort St. John. She works in the Phase 1 and 2 crusher and wash plant producing aggregate for the project's concrete.

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Courtesy Jessie Cook

Jessie Cook, 26, commutes to Fort St. John from Kelowna to work at the construction site for BC Hydro's Site C Clean Energy Project dam in B.C.'s Peace Valley near Fort St. John. She works in the Phase 1 and 2 crusher and wash plant producing aggregate for the project's concrete.

Every month, Jessie Cook flies to Fort St. John where she crushes and washes giant stones into concrete aggregate for two weeks — before heading home to Kelowna for a week off before the routine begins anew.

"Pretty much we take big rocks and smash them into little rocks," she told Metro. "After being in an office so long, I missed being outside and doing something with my hands."

The 26-year-old has previously worked in baking, farming, sales and marketing. But it's the outdoor, hands-on time she loves about this job. And, unlike many construction jobs, it's stable.

At least, it was — before the B.C. NDP sent the $9-billion BC Hydro megaproject for a B.C. Utilities Commission, casting many of its employees into limbo.

"The uncertainty sucks for people with kids and families … it's really hard not knowing," explained Cook by phone from the work site. "They are normal people here who all contribute to our government and only want their families and everyone else to be happy.

"I wish more people would actually talk to the workers, rather than only the people who don't want this to go forward."

Employing roughly 2,500 people, the 1,100 megawatt hydroelectric dam is one of the most controversial in B.C. Environmentalists, local landowners and several Treaty 8 First Nations are opposed to it submerging nearly 10,000 hectares of the Peace River Valley.

Cook is just one of 700 of the workers in the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) union, which last week launched a People of Site C campaign telling employees' stories with photographs and testimonials.

"As we watched the debate around the project," said CLAC spokesman Ryan Bruce in a phone interview, "there's lots of talk about dollars and cents, good value, whether or not we need the electricity, there's environmental and agricultural debates swarming around the whole project.

"But what we didn't want to get lost in the debate was that there are men and women working on this project roughly two years in who are building their lives and supporting their families and communities on the job they have building Site C."

He said the campaign was entirely independent, and not associated with other groups' pro-Site C efforts, such as the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association (ICBA) B.C. which handed out fake "pink slips" to Site C workers after the B.C. NDP came to power.

However, an Angus Reid Institute poll late last month found the dam had two-thirds more backers across the province than opponents. Released Sept. 26, the online survey of 608 B.C. adults found 47 per cent supported Site C, while just 27 per cent opposed it, roughly the same number who hadn't made up their minds (with a margin of error of four per cent).

"Projects should always be reviewed," Bruce acknowledged. "But this one was already reviewed, and work is well underway. We're talking about affecting the lives of a couple thousand people working there."

Another Site C employee featured in his union's campaign is Elhadji (Eli) Mamadou Diallo, originally from Senegal who described Fort St. John as "cold" and not easy to make friends, but who told CLAC the job site has made him "feel like you are family," according to People of Site C. "You are working, but you are also with your friends and making jokes.

"It’s more like it is back home for me."

Asked about the job-loss fears if the project is suspended or cancelled outright by the B.C. NDP, one of the landowners who is fighting the dam alongside First Nations lamented the position in which those workers have been placed.

“I’m not gloating when people lose their jobs," Ken Boon told Metro in an earlier interview. "I have empathy for people who made decisions to move homes and whatever they did to come here to work on this job expecting it to be long-term. Jobs are important, but that’s no justification for building a bad project."

CLAC isn't the only union worried for its members as the dam's fate hangs in the balance. And while CLAC's non-confrontational approach remains controversial in the labour movement ("a different kind of union … seeking win-win outcomes," its website boasts), another union — MoveUp, representing BC Hydro employees — spoke out Sept. 26 for its members in B.C. Utilities Commission hearings last month.

"Our members’ best interests and livelihoods are our highest priorities," said MoveUp president David Black in his presentation, "and I will continue advocating for workers at Site C.

"Whatever the government decides, we need assurances that our members will be taken care of."

The next day, he told Metro that controversy over the dam admittedly put the B.C. NDP-backing union in an "awkward position" — but that the previous B.C. Liberal government bore blame for pushing the project ahead without a BCUC review.

Asked what she would like to say to residents from the Lower Mainland and Peace Valley concerned about environmental and Indigenous impacts of the dam, Cook paused to collect her thoughts.

"I honestly think that they need to rethink," she said. "The media portrays it is as this big, bad, scary environmental site. It's not. The land they're using to build the dam is not in use right now — it's not being farmed."

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