Site C dam: What will it take for the federal government to put its principles into action?

“Canada is built on the ancestral land of Indigenous peoples but regrettably it is also a country that came into being without the meaningful participation of those who were there first. And even where Treaties had been formed to provide a basis for proper relations, they have not been fully honoured or implemented.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressing the UN General Assembly the day after an interim report on the Site C dam was released

“The joint federal-provincial environmental impact assessment of the Site C dam was clear that flooding the Peace River Valley would destroy hundreds of graves and other cultural sites and cause severe, permanent and irreversible harm to the natural environment on which we rely. All this was pushed aside in the rush to build Site C.” Prophet River Chief Lynette Tsakoza responding to the Site C interim report

Three years ago, the federal government approved one of the most environmentally destructive resource development projects in Canada, over the opposition of profoundly affected First Nations.

The government’s own environmental assessment concluded that the Site C hydro-electric dam in northeast BC would cause severe, permanent, and irreversible harm to a unique ecosystem on which the Dunne-za and Cree peoples depend to exercise their constitutionally-protected Treaty rights. The dam would also destroy countless graves and other important cultural sites, as well as multi-generational family farms.

At the time, the federal government claimed that all this destruction was “justified” by the claimed economic benefits of the dam — even though the environmental assessment had raised serious questions about how the need for the dam was determined in the first place.

Yesterday, a preliminary report by the British Columbia Utilities Commission (BCUC) put the the deeply flawed decision-making process around Site C into stark relief.

The newly elected provincial government had tasked the BCUC with assessing the economic case for continuing, suspending, or stopping Site C. The interim report doesn’t offer any conclusions, stating instead that fundamental questions still remain unanswered, including about how BC Hydro concluded that the power from Site C is even needed. The BCUC also criticized BC Hydro for failing to properly assess possible alternatives to flooding the Peace Valley.

If the BCUC is raising such basic questions, even after receiving fresh documentation from BC Hydro and commissioning its own audit, on what possible basis did the provincial and federal governments decide three years ago that the destruction of the Peace Valley and the violation of Indigenous rights was “justified”?

The Trudeau government has refused to revisit the original decision to approve construction of the Site C dam. More than that, the Trudeau government has acted both to implement and defend the approval by granting subsequent licenses necessary for continued construction and by fighting against First Nations when they stood up for the Treaty rights in court.

This is despite continued condemnation of Site C by a wide range of First Nations, environmental and social groups, tens of thousands of concerned citizens, and most recently the United Nations’ top anti-racism body.

With the release of the BCUC interim report, it should be clear that the original approval of Site C was arbitrary and indefensible. If the Trudeau government continues to stand behind this fundamentally flawed decision, it will send a clear message about the real value that it places on respect for Indigenous rights and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

Yesterday at the United Nations in New York, Prime Minister Trudeau told the international community that Canada is working to get its “own house in order” by working hard to “correct past injustices” against Indigenous peoples. The Prime Minister doesn’t need to look that far into the past to find an injustice that needs to be corrected. This week’s interim report by the BCUC should give the government all the reason it needs to suspend a federal approval for the Site C dam that was granted on the basis of the claim that the harm to Indigenous peoples was “justified.”

Read more:

Joint statement with the West Moberly First Nations, Prophet River First Nation, Union of BC Indian Chiefs and David Suzuki Foundation

Op ed by Alex Neve

Analysis of the BCUC interim report on Site C