News

BC confidence vote could prevent destruction of sacred Indigenous sites

The Site C dam will be sent back for review if the Greens and the NDP succeed in toppling the minority Liberal government.
June 26, 2017, 4:15pm

A Green-NDP plan to topple the Liberals from power in British Columbia this week has big implications for a controversial hydroelectric project — and could save sacred First Nations sites slated for destruction.

The minority Liberal government endorsed the $9-billion Site C dam, touting it as a clean energy project that would create jobs. But in a story similar to Standing Rock, which saw pipeline construction bulldoze sacred burial sites, a highway in northern BC is being rerouted to run over a First Nations grave site. It would also come within 50 metres of a sacred sweat lodge, which the lodge keeper says would destroy its sanctity.

The Liberal government says the highway diversion is necessary. Appeals by West Moberly First Nations and Prophet River First Nation to find an alternative route went nowhere last year, with Premier Christy Clark saying any delays to the dam’s strict schedule will cost $600 million. Preliminary construction has already begun on the realignment.

First Nations are now pinning their hopes on this new political coalition: An accord between the Greens and the NDP includes a pledge by both parties to send the Site C dam to review by the BC Utilities Commission, the oversight body that assesses publicly funded projects. A confidence vote is slate for Thursday.

“Anywhere you put a shovel in the ground here, you’re digging up arrowheads.”

“Anywhere you put a shovel in the ground here, you’re digging up arrowheads,” said West Moberly First Nations Chief Roland Willson told VICE News this week.

“It’s like our church,” he said of the sweat lodge, which was built about a decade ago as a place for elders and young people to take part in spiritual ceremonies.

The Green Party has been much more receptive to their arguments, with leader Andrew Weaver pushing for another highway alignment option that would give the graves and sweat lodge a wider berth. After visiting the grave sites and taking part in a sweat ceremony at the lodge last week, he likened destroying those sites to bulldozing a church or cemetery in Victoria.

**“**Would we even consider doing that? I don’t think so,” he told reporters.

According to an engineer report paid for by the First Nations, the road realignment would cost only $5 million.

Chief Wilson compared the road realignment and dam project to Standing Rock in North Dakota and Muskrat Falls in Labrador.

“The similarities between Standing Rock and what’s going on here and what’s going on at Muskrat Falls is, there’s no respect for the Indigenous communities. We’re just a hurdle. We’re something that, you know, get them out of the way. Move them over there. Put them on a reserve over there somewhere. There is nothing that they value with us.”

The Site C dam would be the third dam along the Peace River. The province has used this to argue a third dam wouldn’t be that different from the first two, but Chief Willson says the two dams have flooded 80 percent of the river valley, meaning it’s more important than ever to protect what’s left. Site C would flood another 10 percent of the valley.

“We’re located in northeastern BC. This is treaty 8 territory, there’s a historic number treaty here that’s been in place for over 100 years. One of the promises is ‘no forced interference.’ Part of the interference of the W.A.C. Bennett [the first dam on the Peace River] was that when they flooded it, all the fish are now contaminated with methylmercury — we can’t eat them.”

The two existing dams also flooded the habitats of caribou, mountain sheep and mountain goats, driving them out of the region and eliminating them as an option for traditional hunting. And previous flooding destroyed “massive amounts” of archaeological sites and traditional gathering places, the Chief said. “Now Site C is a continuation of that.”

“What we’re saying is, you don’t have to do that, you don’t have to continue with this cultural genocide,” he said, referring to the destruction of the sweat lodge and grave site.

The Liberals say the new dam project will provide stable electricity for the next 100 years from a non-fossil fuel source, reducing BC’s greenhouse gas emissions.

If the Greens and NDP succeed in toppling the Liberals, the entire dam project will be reviewed. But the two parties aren’t totally aligned on their views about project.

If the Greens and NDP succeed in toppling the Liberals, the move will send the entire dam project to review, however the two parties aren’t totally aligned on their views about project. While Weaver has said he “unequivocally” opposes the project on both economic and moral grounds, NDP leader John Horgan has said he would consider shutting down the project if the review supports that decision.

Weaver told VICE News in an email he would not speculate on the outcome of the BC Utilities Commission review, or how the NDP and Greens would find common ground if the review is supportive of Site C.

“I have agreed to work through the process as outlined in our agreement with the NDP, to send Site C to the BC Utilities Commission for a review in the context of current supply and demand conditions to ensure that the interests of British Columbians are being protected,” he wrote. “At this point I don’t want to comment speculatively on the results of the BCUC review or government action. Our position on Site C has been clear, and we will see what happens with the BCUC review.”