“What you’re looking at is underwater now.”
Nelson author Eileen Delehanty Pearkes let this statement hang in the air for a moment as she flipped through a slideshow presentation at Touchstones on Sunday afternoon. Approximately 50 people had gathered in the lobby for the launch of her book A River Captured, and the image onscreen showed a lush riverside acreage and a man on horseback.
“When we talk about the Columbia River there’s a lot of loss, and that’s what originally captivated me,” Pearkes told the audience. She believes the flooding caused by damming the Columbia has had far-reaching negative repercussions — in this case the ranch owner who lost his property ultimately committed suicide.
“People quite simply don’t know about this. There are very few people with living memory of the Columbia before the dams went in.”
And she’s aiming to remedy that.
“It’s important for residents of the region to understand the history of what happened, so that we can have an informed voice in upcoming government discussions.”
The slides, which are included in the book, depict the Kootenays from the late 1950s to the early 1980s and capture the changing landscape during hydroelectric development. The photographs were taken by an avid hiker named Ron Waters and show the dams and reservoirs covered by the Columbia River Treaty.
The biggest tragedy that resulted from the treaty, according to Pearkes, is the loss of free-running water. As she puts it in her children’s book The Heart of a River, which she’s toured to local elementary schools: “I am a river whose work has been interrupted by a prosperity I do not recognize, whose spirit is impoverished and silenced.”
And she thinks human beings need to rethink their relationship with it. Though in the past rising water levels wreaked havoc on communities such as Trail and Nakusp, she said that doesn’t mean it’s malevolent.
“Can we stop thinking of the river as a villain?”
Pearkes would like her book to end up on the desk of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. And she has a specific message in mind: “We do not forget.”
“Be not fooled that the Columbia River Trust has satisfied what we deserve,” she said. “I want the federal government to come here, to see all the dead shorelines and really understand what’s going on. We don’t want them in their towers making these decisions.”
An audience member thanked Pearkes for sharing her insights and research, noting that many of the issues she explores are pertinent to the controversy swirling around the Site C dam in northeastern B.C. Historians and activists alike lined up to have their books signed.
At one point during the presentation, Pearkes told the audience she had jettisoned a lot of her material to make for a streamlined narrative. With this in mind, she joked that she has an idea for a potential sequel title: A River Freed.