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FALL 2013
Who Speaks for the River?
is the riveting
true story of the final, bitter battle between
the pro-dam Alberta government and the
anti-dam coalition of environmentalists
and some Piikani First Nation individuals.
This coalition really hated the concept of
building a dam over the Oldman River and
flooding a gorgeous green river valley...”full
of birdsong, deer, and cottonwood forests”
– an oasis in the hard, dry treeless prairie
around it.
This is not only a true story, it is an
amazingly prescient one. I was reading a
particular section comparing the water-
level flows of the Oldman River and the
Bow River...”The Bow River has seven
diversions and reservoirs...Without these
diversions and reservoirs...Calgary as we
know it, would not exist.”At that very
moment, I heard on TV the voice of the
mayor of Calgary declaring a state of
emergency and warning of floods on the
The anti-dam coalition included “Friends
of the Oldman,” a law-abiding group
founded by the passionate activist Martha
Kostuch and some not-so-law-abiding
members of the Piikani First Nation, led by
the charismatic Milton BornWith A Tooth
and his group – “The Lonefighters” – who
mostly did whatever Milton told them to
Martha and her “Friends of Oldman”
decided to use the law and environmental
rallies to stop the dam construction. In
1990, Martha and the “Friends” started
to prosecute the Alberta government for
building a dam without federal consent.
After losing their case in Alberta courts,
they took the case to the Federal Court
of Appeal which, “cancelled Alberta’s
licence to build the Oldman Dam until
the Canadian government did a full
environmental assessment of the project.”
They won!
As for the rallies. With the help of Ian
Tyson and some anti-dam friends (Gordon
Lightfoot, Murray McLauchlan), Martha
turned Maycraft, a tiny recreation area
on the banks of the Oldman, into a mini
Canadian “Woodstock” (with a cause). The
“Friends” had expected several hundred to
attend but, by Sunday, there were several
thousand. This provided a platform for the
Blackfoot Piikani to explain the spiritual
significance of the area for their people,
who had lived and worshipped in the river
valley for thousands of years. National
media also attended and spread the word
about the Oldman controversy.
The Alberta government ignored the
successful rally at Maycraft and defied the
decision of the Federal Court of Appeal.
They either broke or dodged the law to
continue construction of the Oldman Dam
until it was completed – still unlicensed.
At this point, Milton and his Lonefighters
decided to take a more direct approach.
They set up camp on their reserve and
started to protest by using a backhoe
and bulldozer to change the course of
the Oldman River. Eventually, nearly 100
police…heavily armed and accompanied
by a helicopter…invaded the camp to
stop the protest. Milton responded to this
invasion by running toward the police with
a single shotgun and firing a few warning
shots. He was immediately put in jail for
four months, before bail was granted. There
followed a blatantly unfair trial before an
openly hostile, racist judge and an all-white
jury. The outcome was, of course, appealed
and in 1994, there was a second trial
before a more reasonable judge, using the
traditional Blackfoot pipe ceremony. Milton
was sentenced to 16 additional months but
by testifying, got a chance to display his
power of words, “This government doesn’t
understand what water is, it’s the blood
bank of this earth.”
Author Robert Girvan has used his
training as a lawyer to translate the actual
transcripts of the trials (especially the first
one) into page-turning, John Grisham-
style courtroom scenes (complete with
transcribed rude suggestions from the
spectators in the gallery).
Lawyers are also trained to argue both side
of an issue. Girvan does this so skilfully
that I became temporarily pro-dam. He
portrayed his picture of the farmers in
the semi-desert of the Palliser Triangle
desperate for water, trying to make a
living in an area which had officially been
designated as not fit for settlement. My
visceral reaction was, “So? Build the damn
After years of research, Robert Girvan has
organized his material in a unique manner
to make a complex issue accessible. It is
such a concise review of Canadian history
and politics that it would be a good
addition to school libraries. He writes in a
warm, conversational manner – sharing
his impression of the key players whom
he interviewed. He also shares his love of
the natural world in his description of the
prairies and mountain roads of Alberta
which he travelled to meet those players.
Milton BornWith A Tooth once said, “When
the right things are said in the right way,
people have no choice but to feel it. This
Who Speaks for the River?
does make you feel it. Enjoy!
By Robert Girvan
Fifth house, $24.95, 392 pages
Willa McLean
is a
freelance writer who
lives in Brampton.
Who Speaks For the River?
The Oldman River Dam and the Search for Justice