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Protesters Vow to Stay Put at Controversial Canadian Dam After Court Rules Against Them

Once built, BC Hydro’s Site C dam will flood an estimated 13,600 acres of fertile farmland, old growth forest, fish habitat, First Nations territory and archaeological sites to replace a portion of the Peace River with a reservoir.

by Julie Chadwick
Feb 29 2016, 5:20pm

Photo by Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

A judge has ruled in favor of a Canadian power company seeking the legal authority to remove a camp of protesters at the site of a massive hydroelectric dam project in British Columbia.

One of the defendants named in the injunction said she plans to respect the court's decision, but other protesters have said they plan to remain where they are for now.

Once built, BC Hydro's Site C dam will flood an estimated 13,600 acres of fertile farmland, old growth forest, fish habitat, First Nations territory and archaeological sites to replace a portion of the Peace River with a 50-mile long reservoir.

The $8.8-billion project — among the most expensive and controversial infrastructure projects in Canada — was approved by the province in late 2014, and construction permits issued last July.

But it's been a source of ongoing tension in the area, pitting those who say flooding the river could amount to a "sin against humanity" against a government that says the project is key to providing "affordable, reliable, clean power" for another 100 years.

The latest drama unfolded last week in the British Columbia Supreme Court, where BC Hydro applied for an injunction to remove protesters from a camp they say is blocking work crews from logging the area. A lawyer for the Crown corporation argued Monday that defendants had "no legal right" to obstruct their work and that an injunction was needed to keep the project on schedule and on-budget.

Opponents to the dam, which include farmers, Peace Valley landowners and Treaty 8 First Nations members, set up a protest camp on the south bank of the river at a historic fur-trading post in late December. They say to put a dam in such a sensitive ecosystem presents a "direct and unnecessary threat" to the traditional lands of the Treaty 8 people and call for plans to be suspended until further review is conducted and other alternatives explored.

"We're trying to remain hopeful but there's a sadness, and that sadness has been present from the beginning," said Prophet River First Nation member Helen Knott, speaking to VICE News from the camp.

"If they are granted the injunction — and I know they applied for the enforcement order at the same time — I know that I don't intend to go anywhere because this is Treaty 8 territory and I believe I have the right to be here," said Knott in an interview prior to the ruling.

"It's really emotional. I'm really heartbroken right now. Heartbroken and worried," she said, through tears, in an interview immediately afterwards, adding that more people are planning to descend on the camp and remain until the police arrive.

"I don't think it's fair, I don't believe in being able to be removed from my traditional territory."

Related: This Fracking Case at Canada's Supreme Court Could Make a Big Difference

Both sides of the argument are heated — former Agricultural Land Commission chairman Richard Bullock said it would be a "tragedy" and "probably a sin against humanity" to flood the Peace River Valley. Former BC Hydro CEO Marc Eliesen told VICE News that the rush to build Site C is perplexing given that it is "certainly not needed" and that even if it was needed, it's "beyond rational explanation" to not consider existing cheaper alternative options like the idle Burrard Thermal station, which could easily supply any power needs that are forecast for the future.

Site C is essential to "keeping the lights on while maintaining low rates for our customers," counters BC Hydro CEO Jessica McDonald, while BC Premier Christy Clark said last month that she wants to push the project "past the point of no return." Over the long term, the province argues that Site C will save ratepayers an average of $650 to $900 million each year, and provide enough electricity for about 450,000 homes per year by 2024.

There are a wide range of issues at stake, but much of the debate centers on economics.

"It's not the best decision, from a strictly economic and energy-supply point of view," energy expert Philip Raphals, who prepared the Treaty 8 First Nation's submission to the federal-provincial joint review panel in 2014, told VICE News. A combination of the huge cost of the project and low energy prices make it unfeasible, adds Raphals, because the energy will have to be sold at a deficit.

"Essentially, what they'll get back for what they sell won't nearly cover the annual cost of the project. And so there's a loss," said Raphals.

What's more, Eliesen says that rather than save hydro customers money, building the dam would in fact lead to large increases for ratepayers.

"If you don't have need for the power, it becomes a sort of stranded asset or a white elephant, and that's the major concern for the future," Eliesen said. "For the life of me, I can't understand it."

The findings of the joint review panel echoed this, stating that the $800 million in lost revenue incurred during the first four years of the project will "come home to B.C. ratepayers in one way or another."

Part of the project's controversy is also centered on the province's refusal to follow the joint review panel's recommendation to refer the dam's costs to the independent BC Utilities Commission for detailed examination, something that Eliesen says is typical for a project of this size.

"There was political interference. Normally this would have been referred, but the current government made a decision, 'No, it's not going to be subject to this review,'" he said.

The government has previously said that it did not believe a referral was necessary in this instance, as they received independent advice on their estimates and the BCUC already had an opportunity to look at their figures earlier. The decision has also gone through other reviews and seven years of study, according to provincial Energy Minister Bill Bennett.

Site C Dam protest camp. (Photo courtesy of Treaty 8) 

This review by an independent body is central to the demands of protesters camped out at the site. Calling themselves the Treaty 8 Stewards of the Land, in January they released a three-point plan which not only insists on an independent review of the project, but for construction to be suspended until ongoing First Nations and landowner lawsuits are settled and the project's infringement on treaty rights is determined.

"There are so many flags that are coming up with this project, it has so many people questioning why was this approved in the first place? Because it doesn't make sense," said Knott, the Prophet River First Nation member. Surrounded by pristine wilderness, the forest is home to a variety of wildlife including wolves, grizzly bear, caribou, cougar, moose, beaver, otters, broad-winged hawks and short-eared owls, among others.

"I made a promise to the water and the land to do my best in terms of protecting it. That's not something I talk about that often," said Knott. "As a mom, I really understand the importance of protecting what we have for future generations."

Canoeing through the area last month with scientist David Suzuki, who is an outspoken opponent of the dam, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said he was overcome with horror when he confronted the construction zone.

"It just rips your heart out. It took me a while to get on top of my emotions. They have some huts [at the camp] that were donated and dropped in by helicopter to stay warm, because it was minus 25, minus 30, and I literally had to go into one of those small buildings to compose myself when I got there and saw the devastation," said Phillip, who is president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.

Phillip said he is also concerned for the safety of those resisting the project — many of whom are young indigenous women — and what he describes as a level of intimidation and harassment that is "unprecedented" in his 40-plus years as an advocate for indigenous rights.

"We respect the right of all individuals to express their opinions about the Site C project in a safe and lawful manner," a spokesperson for BC Hydro said, in an emailed response to a request for an interview.

Follow Julie Chadwick on Twitter: @JulieHChadwick

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Christy Clark
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