Site C Dam – Will Canada respect Indigenous rights?

“Our people have a deep connection with this land because our ancestors told the stories and legends that are connected to that valley.” Chief Liz Logan, Treaty 8 Tribal Association, testifying before the environmental impact assessment of the proposed Site C hydroelectric dam.

It would be impossible to flood more than 80 km of pristine river valley without having a massive impact on local ecosystems and the people who depend on them.

The environmental impact assessment of the proposed $8 billion Site C hydroelectric dam in Northern British Columbia is clear that flooding such a large section of the Peace River valley would “severely undermine” First Nations, Métis and non-Aboriginal use of the area for hunting, trapping, and gathering plant medicines; would make fishing unsafe for at least a generation; and would submerge burial grounds and other crucial cultural and historical sites.

In short, the panel concluded that the project would have “significant environmental and social costs” and that these would be borne by the people least likely to benefit from the project.

The decision of whether or not to approve the construction is now in the hands of the federal Cabinet. 

With the environmental and social impacts established, the question that the Cabinet must answer is whether or not these harms can ever be justified.

In this context, it’s crucial that the federal government not make the same mistake as project proponent, BC Hydro, which has clearly downplayed the importance of Indigenous land rights and the full extent of governments’ obligation to respect and uphold these rights.

The environmental assessment report noted that there was no disagreement that the effect on habitat would be “profound” and irreversible. BC Hydro, however, has claimed that the impact on Indigenous rights may not be significant since Indigenous peoples would have the option of “adapting” their way of life to use land and waters in other parts of the region.

As the environmental assessment itself points out, BC Hydro’s claim ignores the importance of these specific lands and territories to the Indigenous peoples who live on them.

The Treaty 8 Tribal Association has strongly opposed the plan as a violation of the commitments made to them in their Treaty with the Crown and vowed to fight the project in court if needed.

Liz Logan of the Fort Nelson First Nation told the environmental assessment panel, “We hope that we’ve demonstrated how important our relationship to the land is, and we hope that we are able to articulate to you who we are as people.”

The environmental assessment also points out that Indigenous peoples in the region have already lost access to vast areas of land and waters due to the cumulative impacts of previous dams, large-scale oil and gas development and other industrial development and that the same region is now targeted for further development of natural gas.

The panel called BC Hydro’s claims that Indigenous land rights could simply be exercised somewhere else in the region “superficial” and “unsupported.”

Significantly, the environmental assessment also questioned the basic rationale for the project, noting that the additional generating power may not be required in the timetable that was set out and that alternatives had not been properly explored.

Indigenous peoples’ rights to live on the land — and make their own decisions about how the land should be used — are protected in the Canadian Constitution, in historic and contemporary Treaties, and in international human rights standards such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Across this spectrum, there is clear consensus that a very high standard of precaution is always required in any decision that could affect Indigenous peoples’ relationship to their traditional lands and territories, particularly where the economies and cultures of Indigenous peoples have already been harmed by previous government actions.

Amnesty International supports the conclusion of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that in almost all cases large scale resource development projects should proceed only if the Indigenous peoples who may be affected have given their free, prior and informed consent.

We strongly believe that this standard of protection is consistent both with Canada’s obligations under international human rights law, and with the Canadian Constitution as it has been interpreted in a series of Supreme Court decisions, up to and including this year’s landmark decision on the Tsilhqot’in title case.

Learn more:

Short video featuring Indigenous and non-Indigenous voices from the Peace River valley

Site C environmental impact assessment

Treaty 8 Tribal Association