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Trudeau Test? 300 Academics Join First Nations in Urging Halt to Site C Dam

300 academics urge Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to stop construction of the Site C dam, while First Nations call it a test of indigenous relations.

Despite growing protests to the Site C hydroelectric dam being proposed by B.C. Hydro in northeastern British Columbia, construction on the $8.8 billion project is proceeding.

Joining the voices raised in opposition most recently were a slew of academics and scientists, who wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on May 19 warning that the project is ill-advised both for environmental and treaty reasons.

The move came right after the disbanding of a two-month-long protest camp in front of BC Hydro’s headquarters in Vancouver whose participants were so dedicated that one of them, 24-year-old Kristin Henry, had to be hospitalized in March after a 19-day hunger strike. Henry was surprised to learn later that her name was part of an injunction sought by BC Hydro to kick them out, the Canadian Press reported in April. However, she was adamant that an injunction would not stop the protest camp.

“I think the news of the injunction will come out as a pretty big surprise because we’re totally within our rights to publicly protest a public issue,” Henry told the Canadian Press. “I don’t see people standing down and letting this dam happen.”

The Site C dam would flood 20 square miles, or 13,000 acres, of land on the Peace River, according to Metro Vancouver. A large portion of that is used for agricultural purposes. Moreover it lies within Treaty 8 First Nations territory.

BC Hydro’s filling of a civil claim for an injunction in British Columbia Supreme Court to have the protesters removed from their camp prompted an outpouring of support for the protesters, who were dubbed “land and title defenders.”

“We gratefully acknowledge the incredible sacrifice made by the land and title defenders camped at BC Hydro,” Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said in a statement. “The proposed Site C dam doesn’t make economic or environmental sense—instead, it will drive up hydro rates; produce energy that BC does not need; drastically destroy the environment and negatively impact food security; and threaten Treaty 8 First Nations’ ability to exercise their constitutionally-protected Treaty rights.”

Currently there are several pending court challenges lead by Treaty 8 Nations as well as the Auditor General’s review of the project. All the while, construction continues to move forward on the Peace River southwest of Fort St. John.

During the federal election last fall the former Conservative Government under Stephen Harper issued more than 10 permits for the project to commence. In February New Democratic Party Environment Critic Nathan Cullen criticized newly elected Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo for continuing to issue permits. It is still unclear whether the Canadian government’s May 9 announcement that it would incorporate the tenets of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into federal law will have any repercussions for the megaproject.

Last week nearly 300 notable scientists, many of them from the Royal Society of Canada—an organization of Canada’s top researchers, artists and academics—issued a letter to Trudeau saying the project should be subjected to a review by the B.C. Utilities Commission, a move the provincial government had previously rejected. In her own letter, Royal Society of Canada President Maryse Lassonde said the B.C. government’s judgment in passing a bill that prevented a review of the project was troubling and raised serious questions about the government’s support for the controversial dam.

“The number and scope of significant adverse environmental effects arising from the Site C Project are unprecedented in the history of environmental assessment in Canada,” she wrote. “Equally troubling is the fact that the Site C Project is proceeding even though there are outstanding First Nations treaty and Aboriginal rights to be resolved. Past projects often neglected or ignored Aboriginal peoples and their concerns—with adverse and lingering consequences. Those days are supposed to be over.”

Meanwhile, BC Hydro stated on its website that the Site C dam is essential in order to provide clean energy to British Columbia. In a 2015 media release shortly after the project was approved by the provincial government, the crown corporation said it was “committed to meeting its obligation to consult and accommodate aboriginal groups.”

Although Canada’s announcement of its support for the U.N. Declaration was widely celebrated, there were few applauding the announcement in northeastern B.C. Prophet River First Nation leaders called the endorsement hypocritical in light of the ongoing construction. Allowing Site C to proceed violates both the declaration and of the Liberal party's election promise to rebuilt its relationship with Canada's First Nations, the West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations said in a joint statement.

RELATED: First Nations Vow Fight Against Site C Dam in BC After Setback

"The destruction of the Peace River Valley will have a devastating impact on our peoples' ability to maintain our traditional mode of life and cultural identity," Prophet River Chief Lynette Tsakoza said, calling the government’s UN Declaration endorsement mere lip service to her people’s legitimate right to preserving their way of life. “All we have is our land, our rivers and our wildlife. We won’t give up this fight.”