Trudeau Accused of Betraying First Nations After Permits Granted for Controversial Site C Dam

The massive project along BC's Peace River will flood an 83-kilometre stretch of the valley.

Aug 2 2016, 4:53pm

Photo by CP/Linda Givetash

First Nations in British Columbia are calling the approval of permits for a massive new dam that will flood their land "an absolute betrayal" by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

On Friday, Transport Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans gave the provincial power utility the go-ahead to build the $9 billion Site C dam project, though it's currently facing lawsuits from First Nations and landowners. Construction is already underway on the mega-dam that would flood a huge and scenic 83-kilometer long valley where generations of farmers have harvested crops and First Nations people hunt, fish, and gather medicine. The flooding would impact more than 30 farms, according to a panel tasked with overseeing the project.

But BC Premier Christy Clark said she was relieved to see federal approval for the project.

"It was getting a little bit close to the wire because if those permits hadn't come through soon, we might have had to delay the project and send everybody home," she told the Vancouver Sun. "It might have cost BC Hydro a lot of money because there are penalties in every contract they've signed. So we avoided a really big problem."

The dam, which would be the third hydroelectric dam along Peace River, already employs 1,500 people in BC, and the provincial government has said it will create 10,000 direct jobs. Touting the perks of the project, Clark has said it will supply the province with renewable power for the next century at a time that demand for power is expected to increase by 40 percent over the next 20 years.

The previous Conservative government granted preliminary permits for the project, but politicians and academics have called the dam a major test for the Liberal government, given the party's emphasis on science-based decision making and a new nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations.

"It represents an absolute betrayal of all the commitments and promises Prime Minister Trudeau made during the last election," Stewart Phillip, head of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, told the Canadian Press. Phillip has previously vowed he will be arrested before seeing the dam go forward.

"We're not the least bit impressed with Trudeau's actions in comparison to his lofty public platitudes," the chief continued. "There's certainly a vast difference between the two."

Before the election, Trudeau's government signalled to First Nations that their rights would be upheld under a Liberal government, and promised to engage them on issues including infrastructure.

"We will renew the relationship between Canada and Indigenous Peoples," the Liberal platform states. "It is time for Canada to have a renewed nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples, based on recognition, rights, respect, co-operation and partnership. This is both the right thing to do and a sure path to economic growth."

In efforts supported by the Assembly of First Nations and Amnesty International, the West Moberly, Prophet River, and Blueberry River First Nations have challenged the dam in court, arguing Canada is ignoring their treaty rights, and the dam is a major industrial hazard infringing on their land.

"The Site C dam impacts us by destroying the last functional 80 kilometres of the Peace River Valley that we have left," Roland Wilson, Chief of West Moberly First Nation, says in a video by DeSmog Canada about the project.

"We're fighting Site C in the courts because it's the right thing to do," Wilson continues. "BC is ignoring its obligation—and Canada is ignoring its obligation—to the treaty. Hunting, fishing, gathering medicines, gathering food, that's what was promised to us under Treaty 8."

Trudeau has been quiet on the project, but the DFO told DeSmog Canada they had consulted affected Indigenous groups, including the Prophet River and West Moberly First Nations and ten other groups, and that officials "have made significant efforts to provide opportunities for input."

At a protest outside BC Hydro in April, Wilson prompted laughter when he called the project "a stupid idea." About a dozen protesters camped outside the utility to draw attention to the issue, and one protester was hospitalized after a hunger strike.

The dam will emit "significantly less" greenhouse gas compared to fossil fuel sources, and has passed "a thorough and independent" environmental assessment, the province contends.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May, has previously called the project a "litmus test" for the Liberal government's relationship with First Nations.

"As a new Liberal government, they made promises to science-based evidence-based decision making to respect First Nations," May told DeSmog a week before the permits were issued. "If they take any of those commitments seriously, they can't issue a single additional permit.

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter.