Sixth in a series about the Columbia River Treaty
He remembers picking cherries.
When Wally Penner was a young boy, he used to wander through the orchards of Renata on his grandmother Maria Neufeld’s estate. Four generations of his family had devoted their lives to the tiny hamlet on Lower Arrow Lake, which would later be submerged following the signing of the Columbia River Treaty in 1965.
“My grandmother was a trusting person,” Penner told the Star.
“She trusted the government and said, ‘They’re going to treat us fine,’ but you know what? They didn’t. She had 12 acres of orchard and a good sturdy two-storey house, and all she got was $10,000. Even in those days you couldn’t buy anything with that.”
And that’s only one example of the “underhanded” way the government bullied Renata residents into giving up their land before burning down their homes and forcefully evicting them from the community they’d called home.
Penner wishes he’d done something more.
“I’d left a year or two before that to work and go to school, and those days we weren’t really in tune with how we should get together and make corporations accountable. If I knew what I know now, it’d be very different.”
And if he could go back, what would he do?
“We would round up all the people and say, ‘We’re not moving until we get satisfaction.’ We would put up a fight. But I was too young to know any better.”
At the time of the flooding there were 128 people living in the community, many of them Mennonites, and they were surrounded on all sides by First Nations villages. Now all that remains of the idyllic town are submerged stumps and the occasional foundation of a destroyed home.
And as it happened, Penner was on the surveying crew responsible for marking off both the clearing and the flooding boundary, so he saw firsthand what they were about to lose.
“It was a way of life they enjoyed, that was quite relaxing. I knew one resident who had a beautiful orchard, well-maintained, he had this beautiful way of life and then he ended up working as a deckhand on the Castlegar ferry,” he said.
“It really impacted a lot of people, and some of them never recovered.”
The problem was the government wasn’t offering them reasonable compensation for their land, and they were pitting them against their neighbours. Some residents carried their anger through the rest of their lives.
And so as his career progressed — Penner worked as a construction surveyor and then in forestry — he became more and more convinced that not only was his community owed some compensation for what happened, but maybe he was the person who could help set things right.
“I got a call because I was working as the regional economic development officer, and the government asked if I knew anybody who could open an office for Columbia Power in Castlegar. They needed someone who could do public relations,” he said.
“Then they phoned me up and asked if I would be interested. My thoughts were why would I go work for a hydro company when it was BC Hydro that did us in? Why would I do that? I lost a bit of sleep over it, but finally I said: I’m going to.”
His promise to himself: “I’m going to do it different. We’re going to build these projects in a different way than BC Hydro, we’re going to treat people properly and pay people properly, and if there’s any way I can be an influence, then I’m going to do this.”
And now, looking back on decades of work, he feels like that’s exactly what he’s accomplished. He worked on the Hugh Keenleyside Dam, the Brilliant Dam and a number of other projects.
“We treated people properly, we developed a relationship with the unions and we did unbelievable consultation with the communities.”
Penner ultimately left Columbia Power in 2007, spent some time at the Columbia Basin Trust, and then was named the project manager for the Waneta Dam expansion. That was one of the most fulfilling gigs of his life.
“Waneta was great because we had people I’d worked with at Columbia Power, and I understood what needed to be done. We worked closely with people and I’d say we had 98, 99 per cent approval.”
So now that he’s stepping back a bit — Penner still works part-time for CBT — he’s feeling optimistic that the community will be able to avoid the mistakes that were made in the past, not just in Renata but all throughout the Basin.
“I think we’re in great shape. We ended up in a much better spot financially than we ever dreamed with the CBT. We thought it was going to take some time, and so did the government,” he said.
“People didn’t think we’d build these projects. BC Hydro had tried and failed, and now we’ve got Waneta and all these other projects. We’ve had World Bank hear about us and come ask about our model, we’ve had government people from Nepal.”
The thing is, he says the economic model they’re championing is unlike anything else in the world.
“It’s really quite simple: don’t just pillage and go, leave something for the people in the area where you created damage so they feel like they got something out of it. Treat them properly. Sometimes you have to sacrifice something for the good of the people.”
But he wishes more people knew about all this.
By telling stories of Renata, and sharing with people the work done by the Columbia Basin Trust, he hopes to honour the memories of his friends and family members — some of whom have now passed on.
“One of the real tragedies is the young people, they haven’t seen it and they don’t know what happened. They don’t understand the wrongs that were done, and if we don’t understand the wrongs that were done, is this going to happen again? We have to learn from what we did wrong.”