collaboration accueil manuel copeh

Demand for beer cans tied to ancestral bones washing ashore in BC

By Jenn Diederich 


Aluminum: the miracle metal. Lightweight, durable, recyclable. It makes the beer cans we love to drink from and the airplanes we love to fly in. But what if there’s a darker side to aluminum production?

kenney dam imageAfter World War II there was a high demand for aluminum products in Canada, and in an unprecedented manoeuvre the BC Government decided to give the water rights of the Nechako River to a private corporation: Rio Tinto Alcan (formerly Alcan). The Kenney Dam was then constructed in 1952, creating the Nechako Reservoir, and powering Rio Tinto Alcan’s aluminum smelters (Royal BC Museum, 2013).

cheslatta gravesThere are always unintended consequences of humans trying to dominate the natural environment through resource extraction, though. First, let us address the ongoing legacy of colonialism and economic imperialism in Canada: 120,000 acres of the Cheslatta Carrier Nation’s territory were flooded immediately after the Dam’s construction, and they have had to endure almost yearly flooding since then. Loss of villages, vegetation, and spiritual sites (Dacre, 2016) are just a few of the ongoing traumas the Cheslatta have had to bear. Their ancestors’ bones have literally washed ashore due to flooding of their burial grounds (CBC Daybreak, 2015). Next, let us address the ecological impacts of this project. The Dam has had an immensely negative impact on the Nechako watershed: lower water flows mean warmer water temperatures, and this can be lethal to fish (Nienow, 2016). The Nechako is home to a population of white sturgeon who are now endangered due to industrial use and habitat degradation (McAdam et al., 2018) and efforts to increase the population are underway (Picketts et al., 2017). Loss of biodiversity, regular flooding, and a complete disregard for the Cheslatta’s land and ancestors – how much more damage does aluminum production need to cause before we take action?

inside alcans power chamberInside Alcan's power chamber, Royal BC Museum

Some questions worth asking ourselves include: why does a private corporation own the water of the Nechako River, and what can be done about the ongoing negative impacts this Dam has on the Cheslatta’s territory and the surrounding Nechako watershed? According to senior policy advisor Mike Robertson for the Cheslatta Carrier Nation, a cold-water release facility could help to rectify the ecological harms caused by the Kenney Dam (Nienow, 2016). Over the decades plans have been drawn up to build such a facility several times, yet it has never come to fruition. It is time to investigate why this is the case. Presently, a framework for negation continues between Rio Tinto Alcan, the BC government, and the Cheslatta people (Dacre, 2016) and only time will tell whether the BC government – or Rio Tinto Alcan – has to pay for the havoc this Dam continues to cause.


Dacre, C. (2016, September 12). Province working towards settlement with cheslatta over kenney dam. My Prince George Now. Retrieved from

Human remains wash ashore in nechako river flooding, rio tinto alcan blamed. (2015, June 3). CBC Daybreak North. Retrieved from

McAdam, S. O., Crossman, J. A., Williamson, C., St‐Onge, I., Dion, R., Manny, B. A., & Gessner, J. (2018). If you build it, will they come? spawning habitat remediation for sturgeon. Journal of Applied Ichthyology, 34(2), 258-278. doi:10.1111/jai.13566

Nienow, F. (2016, June 15). Impacts of the kenney dam. Burns Lake Lakes District News. Retrieved from

Picketts, I. M., Parkes, M. W., & Déry, S. J. (2017). Climate change and resource development impacts in watersheds: Insights from the nechako river basin, canada. The Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe Canadien, 61(2), 196-211. doi:10.1111/cag.12327

Royal BC Museum. (2013, November 30). This week in history: Season 2 episode 2 kenney dam [Video file]. Retrieved from