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BC Hydro’s Site C hardly a done deal as Ottawa reviews First Nations issues

A project rendering of BC Hydro’s Site C development proposal in Peace River Valley, B.C.

BC Hydro

With work already under way on the banks where the dam is to be built, it might seem as if Site C is a done deal.

Premier Christy Clark certainly hopes so. She views the start of the $9-billion project as one of her two greatest accomplishments (the other being an agreement in principle with Petronas for proposed development of an $11-billion LNG plant).

But despite all the activity by contractors building access roads and clearing land for work camps, tunnels and dam foundations, BC Hydro's Site C project could yet be brought to a halt.

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NDP Leader John Horgan recently signalled that if his party wins the provincial election in 2017, it might abandon the controversial project. But the courts – or the federal government – could stall it before then.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has not, like Mr. Horgan, taken a stand against Site C. But he has promised to pursue a new relationship with First Nations.

In mandate letters to his new cabinet ministers, Mr. Trudeau stressed the importance of consultation and engagement with aboriginal communities.

"No relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous Peoples. It is time for a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples, based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership," he wrote.

In his mandate letter to Jody Wilson-Raybould, the first aboriginal person ever appointed justice minister, he calls for a review of the federal government's litigation strategy.

"This should include early decisions to end appeals or positions that are not consistent with our commitments, the Charter [of Rights and Freedoms] or our values," Mr. Trudeau wrote.

One of the things Ms. Wilson-Raybould will now have to review is the federal government's opposition to a Federal Court challenge by First Nations to Ottawa's approval of the Site C project.

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Treaty 8 First Nations say Site C infringes treaty rights and that consultation was inadequate. They lost in the first stage at Federal Court, but are appealing.

Chief Roland Willson of the West Moberly First Nations and Chief Lynette Tsakoza of the Prophet River First Nation recently wrote a letter on the subject to Mr. Trudeau, Ms. Wilson-Raybould and several other cabinet ministers.

"Canada has to date actively opposed our appeal," the chiefs wrote. "Under your present mandate, we would expect Canada's position on this appeal to be reconsidered."

The chiefs wrote that if Mr. Trudeau is serious about rebuilding relationships with First Nations, he should start in the Peace, where native people fear the Site C reservoir will destroy their way of life.

"The Peace River Valley is an environmentally and culturally unique ecosystem to which the Treaty No. 8 First Nations are deeply connected both culturally and spiritually," they wrote. "This is the last stretch of the Peace River Valley we have left, as over 70% of the valley has already been transformed into vast reservoirs [by two existing BC Hydro dams]."

The chiefs note the Peace region has already been heavily affected by 16,267 oil and gas well sites, 358 square kilometres of pipeline right of ways and more than 5,000 square kilometres of existing or planned logging.

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"The previous government's position that major development projects such as the Site C dam can be approved in an area heavily impacted by hydroelectric and heavy industrial development without the decision maker even turning its mind to whether the project infringes Treaty rights and the constitution does not fit within your mandate and cannot continue," they wrote.

On Dec. 8, Mr. Willson and Ms. Tsakoza will be in Ottawa for an Assembly of First Nations conference.

They hope to meet several cabinet ministers to argue that drowning sacred sites and flooding hunting grounds is no way for one government to show respect for another. If Mr. Trudeau agrees, Site C could come in for renewed environmental scrutiny and possibly be stalled. And if the courts rule treaty rights have been infringed, it might be stopped.

BC Hydro has already spent $423-million on the project. So the stakes are huge.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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