by Isabel Mosseler

Frances Laflèche-Cockburn had never been to a protest before, but on Sunday, July 22nd, she joined with a group of other protesters challenging the erection of an 8-foot fence topped with barbed wire. The fence, put up by West Nipissing Power Generation, cuts off access to the Sturgeon River below the hydroelectric dam in Sturgeon Falls, an area generally known as Big Bear. Cockburn, known locally as an historian, was feeling particularly put out by the diminished access to nature for people in Sturgeon Falls. She feels the record of incidents associated with the dam does not support the measures. “The last time someone died [there] was 1981,” she said. “There was a fence here in the early 1900s, with posts, with cords, it was all they had… anybody could jump it.” She said that the earlier fence was a warning fence because at that time, the mill had a chute. Laflèche-Cockburn maintains the newly erected fence is overkill.

Fellow protestor Christine Linklater agrees that opportunities to enjoy nature for people without means is being increasingly diminished in West Nipissing; if you don’t have the bucks you’re out of luck. “If you don’t own a boat and aren’t rich and you want to do something – I used to come here and fish.” Protestor Randy Kirkwood, an avid fisherman, contends that the fence actually makes things more dangerous, as people with watercraft have no problem accessing the site, but the fence would impede any emergency service personnel if an accident did occur. While the protestors were lined up at the fence, two women on paddleboards and a Sea-Doo made their way to Big Bear by way of the river. Kirkwood pointedly asked, “Let’s say that Sea-Doo that was just here, what if they hit a rock? It goes out of control and hits the rock and two victims end up on the rock. How is EMS going to get down there? There’s no gate.”

The writing was on the wall in 2017 when Greg Carello, power plant manager for West Nipissing Power Generation (WNPG) said that major efforts were being made to ensure public safety below the dam. At the time, he said people were not leaving the area when the siren was sounded, signalling the opening of the dam, despite signs and warnings. He worried there would eventually be an accident, with WNPG open to liability and worse, someone hurt or even killed. WNPG is owned by the municipality of West Nipissing, with profits boosting the town’s revenues, but remains an independent corporation.

When the fence started going up on the week of July 9, attempts were made to contact Carello who, when finally contacted, refused to answer any questions and directed The Tribune to the municipality and their new communications department. The town issued a statement on July 17. “In its ongoing efforts to ensure public safety, West Nipissing Power Generation Limited is erecting a fence that will eliminate the access to the riverbank and dam area. At 8 feet in height, the fence will run from the spill dam and continue just south of Queen Street, at the Pumping Station. … Plant operators have worked attentively to survey the area before performing a gate movement, but the access to the dam continues to pose a threat to public safety. These precautions are necessary and the next step to ensuring the safety of the community. The fence should be completed and up within a month,” read the document.

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Protestors gathered at Big Bear on Sunday, July 22 to show their anger over an 8-foot fence erected to keep people away from the Sturgeon river below the power dam. The popular spot has been used for generations but WN Power Generation says the site is too dangerous and needed to be secured.

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