Fourth in our series on the Columbia River Treaty.
It’s name meant rebirth.
Renata was an idyllic hamlet on the shores of Lower Arrow Lake, comprised mostly of Mennonite settlers and surrounded on all sides by First Nations villages. At the height of its population over 250 people lived there, without electricity, connected to the rest of civilization by a three-car ferry and a nearly impassable dirt road.
Originally named Dog Creek, the Mennonite settlers living there wanted a new moniker that would capture the spirit of their little farming community. Once they agreed on Renata, the first baby born shared that name.
When the Columbia River Treaty came along in 1964, leading to the construction of a series of dams that led to Renata becoming completely submerged, residents had no idea their pioneering existence was at risk.
They weren’t consulted ahead of time, or warned that they were about to be wiped off the map.
Dreams for the future
“Renata was one of many communities that disappeared following the Columbia River Treaty,” Nelson author Anne DeGrace told the Star.
“Here was a community with multiple generations that had these hopes and dreams for a future. They had come here, faced a wall of trees, took them all down and dug out the stumps to plant strawberries. It was a pioneer existence.”
According to her, the residents of Renata had worked hard “so future generations could prosper, but then suddenly it was just gone without any regard for the people who lived there and called it their home.”
These days if you take a boat out to visit Renata, depending on the time of year, you will either find it underwater or completely razed. Though you can find the occasional house foundation, and the remains of their orchards, it’s almost as if it was never there at all.
Their graveyard, for instance, was covered with a slab of concrete and unmarked. Residents have since returned to place a plaque there to keep their memories alive, but it too is underwater for most of the year.
The Story of Renata
DeGrace had lived in Nelson for decades before she ever heard of Renata. She was working in the library archives in 2003 when she discovered a local history with historical photos called The Story of Renata, written by the former residents of the town.
“I was instantly struck. There’s something about local histories that is so honest, because they have no other agenda than to tell their story,” said DeGrace.
And the stories she read disturbed and dismayed her. The book was written while the community was emptying out and BC Hydro was painting Xs on the sides of their homes in preparation for demolition.
“They pitted residents against one another. They would say, ‘we’re going to give you this really good deal but don’t tell your neighbour’. There was a lot of anger and frustration, and it divided the community at the end.”
She ultimately met one of the book’s authors, Rose Rohn, who defiantly posed for a portrait in front of her home while it burned. Her son Bruce had been hired by BC Hydro to be on one of the burn crews, which is the basis of one particular story included in DeGrace’s novel Treading Water.
It was a weird position for Bruce to be in, getting paid to burn down his own neighbourhood, but when DeGrace met him in person he was ambivalent.
“He said ‘Hey, it was money. I wanted to buy a car, move on and get out of there, move to a big city like Castlegar.’”
A grieving, angry community
Rose Rohn has since passed away, but when DeGrace met her she was in her 90s. And for as long as she lived, she never forgave BC Hydro and those responsible for the Columbia River Treaty for the way her community was destroyed.
“The government didn’t want to provide services such as electricity, and it was getting to the point where they would have to do that if anyone stayed, so they really wanted everybody out,” said DeGrace.
“They were the people in the way.”
That’s the title of a book by J.W. Wilson, another person who experienced the turmoil surrounding Renata’s death. He was incensed by the situation, but it was Rose’s rage that really stayed with DeGrace.
“She was furious about the whole thing. When I told her I had a grant from the Columbia Basin Trust to write this novel, she saw that as being part and parcel with the Columbia River Treaty and she almost didn’t talk to me,” she said.
DeGrace said there were mixed feelings within the population, but there was one common denominator: grief.
“Some people said, ‘You know, there has to be progress.’ For a lot of people their bone to pick was more about how it was done than the fact that it was done.”
Bringing things full circle
DeGrace is proud of the Columbia Basin Trust, a large-scale fund which emerged from the treaty. In fact, there’s a a satisfying feeling that comes from knowing that she received money from one of its institutions, the Columbia Kootenay Cultural Alliance, by writing about the treaty that made its creation possible.
“People should be really proud of the trust, the deal brokered by Corky Evans and others, because it was a really thoughtful contract to return benefits to the region it affected.”
But the psychic and social wounds haven’t healed yet, even though it’s been decades, and it’s impossible to say whether the people involved were ever truly compensated.
“Is it enough? Does too much go to the province instead of the region? I don’t know, but the Columbia Basin Trust has benefited a lot of people.”
Seeing Renata in person
During the years she was writing Treading Water, DeGrace got the opportunity to personally meet a number of the residents — including Wally Penner of the Columbia Basin Trust, who grew up there as a child.
He drove her across Lower Arrow Lake in a speedboat and walked along the shore with her.
“You can walk amidst what’s left of the orchards and see the rows of stumps in the sand,” she said.
“We just walked all of the paths around there and I let him roll. He would talk about his childhood memories, and along the beach you could pick up pieces of china.”
DeGrace was ultimately invited to an annual pig roast on Renata’s shoreline. Residents gathered around a bonfire that lit up the waters of Lower Arrow Lake, enjoying each others’ company and conjuring up memories of everything they lost.