A First Nation whose treaty lands will be flooded when the $8.8-billion Site C dam is completed in a decade is vowing to step up its ongoing legal battle against the project after it was approved by the province last week.
West Moberly First Nation is already embroiled in several court cases seeking a judicial review against the 1,100-megawatt hydroelectric project, slated to start construction next July. Now the band's chief says that in addition to the five existing lawsuits—and a sixth in the works—he intends to file for injunctions to block the thousands of permits that BC Hydro needs to start work.
“We're expecting permits to start rolling in … that have to be approved for construction to get under way,” Chief Roland Willson said. “We're preparing injunctions until after the court cases are done.”
He said that the 52-mile stretch of northeastern B.C.'s Peace River valley that is planned to be submerged—an area the size of Canada's capital, Ottawa—is habitat for ungulate species including moose, elk and deer, as well as wolves, and serves as a vital hunting, fishing and trapping ground for First Nations. The activities are protected under Treaty 8, which covers three provinces and a landmass twice the size of California.
“If they're not willing to work with us to develop alternatives, we're going to do whatever we have to do to protect our treaty,” Willson said.
The provincial government, meanwhile, said that Treaty 8 nations' opposition to the project is not as clear-cut as West Moberly and the treaty leadership is implying, and that the project will benefit both British Columbia and indigenous communities in the long term through jobs and cheap electricity.
“We know currently as a group, the Treaty 8 first nations are opposed to the project,” said B.C. minister of energy and mines Bill Bennett at a press conference on December 16. “I would suggest the level of opposition is different between the individual First Nations, but it's not for me to comment any more on that.”
He added that the province reached out to the affected bands and offered them accommodation agreements to compensate them for the lost land, but that so far none have accepted money.
The Site C dam has drummed up controversy since the 1980s, when the provincial B.C. Utilities Commission shelved the decades-old proposal, ruling it was not needed. After the province resurrected the idea in the mid-2000s, the government declined to send it back to the commission, instead holding a series of reviews that concluded in October 2014 that impacts on First Nations could not be mitigated.
Given that, the province's leader, Premier Christy Clark, said the decision to approve the dam was not an easy one—but was necessary for British Columbia residents for the century to come.
“In the life of any province, there are moments where each of us has an opportunity, a responsibility, to make big decisions,” Clark told reporters, “ones that are going to matter, in this case, for a century. The Site C Clean Energy project will not be built in a day, and it certainly won't be built in a year. But once it is built, it is going to benefit British Columbians for generations.”
The project, provincial Crown corporation BC Hydro says, would provide power for the equivalent of 450,000 homes, although some critics allege that the main beneficiaries will not be residents, but industries such as mining and liquefied natural gas, for example.
“In order for our economy to grow, we need to ensure that there is power—clean, reliable and sustainable power—at low cost,” Clark said, adding that the mega-project is “an investment in our future and our children's future.”
Because of Site C's government blessing, now those economic sectors will face heightened First Nations opposition, Willson warned.
“Our only option is to start pushing back on everything—on shale gas and pipelines,” he said.
The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs promised to stand with Treaty 8 bands “to ensure this project does not proceed,” according to a statement. The Peace River was already dammed twice in previous decades, the Union stated, and the harm to First Nations has been cumulative ever since.
“Approval of this projected signals to First Nations across B.C. that their values, beliefs, title, aboriginal rights and treaty rights will essentially be trampled upon, cast aside and disregarded whenever government deems a project economically important and significant,” argued UBCIC vice-president Chief Bob Chamberlin.
For Chief Willson, there is still “light at the end of the tunnel” even if the government chose to ignore his band's concerns over lost territories, and warned that there could be years of costly court battles ahead.
“It's the last chunk of river valley that we have,” he said. “We're just digging in our heels now to protect whatever we have left … Site C is not a done deal yet.”