Site C land defenders face injunction in battle to stop dangerous dam project

Image: A sign reading "Keep the Peace" with the words "Site C Dam" in a circle with a line through it is staked into the ground overlooking a river valley. (Image credit: Wayne Sawchuck/The Green Pages)

Image: A sign reading “Keep the Peace” (with the words “Site C Dam” written in a read circle with a line through it) is attached to a birch tree on an embankment overlooking a river valley. (Image credit: Wayne Sawchuck/The Green Pages)

For the past several weeks, a group of land defenders has been occupying territory in the Peace River Valley on which the government of British Columbia intends to build a massive hydroelectric dam, known as Site C.

Though their presence has been an impediment to work essential to the dam’s construction, the protesters were, up until recently, begrudgingly tolerated by the authorities.

However, on January 20, despite B.C. Hydro’s statements that they were trying to negotiate a peaceful and mutually agreeable resolution to the occupation, the utility went to court to seek an injunction that would require the land defenders to immediately vacate their encampment or else face steep punitive damages.

As these land defenders await the next phase of their struggle to block this dam’s construction, it’s worth looking back on why they’re there and what this fight is about.

For those unfamiliar with the Site C occupation, this APTN report by Tina House is a good introduction.

The Site C dam, an $8.5-billion project, will inundate at least 5500 hectares of land and create a reservoir eighty-three kilometres long. In the process, 78 First Nations heritage sites, including burial grounds, will be submerged. There are major unresolved questions about the wisdom of constructing this dam, and many feel that the proper processes of consultation and scientific analysis have not been followed.

Despite these concerns, the dam’s construction is being moved forward as rapidly as possible. Though the project has existed as a concept for over thirty years, it’s only now, in the final few years of the B.C. Liberal Party’s mandate, that construction is beginning. And given the B.C. NDP’s opposition to the project, there is a sense of now-or-never urgency from the project’s supporters, both in and out of government, which is perhaps leading to some of the legally questionable behaviour that we’re seeing.

Given the egregiously disrespectful and aggressive behaviour on the part of the province and B.C. Hydro, the land defenders’ demands are shockingly modest:

“As Treaty 8 Stewards of the Land, we have been camped out at Rocky Mountain Fort for many days in accordance with our belief that the Site C dam project represents a direct, and unnecessary threat to the traditional lands of Treaty 8 peoples,” said Yvonne Tupper. “We call on Prime Minister Trudeau and Premier Christy Clark to work with us to ensure that these lands are protected by temporarily suspending approvals to log forests, build roads, and clear further lands in preparation for dam construction.”

The three-point plan calls for:

  • A temporary suspension of all construction and land-clearing operations related to the Site C dam project until court challenges initiated by First Nations and local landowners who are opposed to the project are finally determined.
  • The federal government to temporarily suspend all federal Site C dam project approvals and the issuance of any future permits pending an expedited, open and transparent federal review of the infringement of Constitutionally protected Treaty 8 rights by the Site C dam.
  • The provincial government to temporarily suspend all construction work at the Site C dam site pending an independent review by the BC Utilities Commission of the Site C dam project, with full procedural safeguards, as recommended by the federal/provincial Joint Review Panel and many others.

They’re not calling for the project to be unilaterally killed; they’re calling for the process of hearings and appeals and reviews to be respected. They’re overwhelmingly confident that the facts and evidence are firmly on their side, and that any impartial review of the project would reject it on its merits.

And it’s true that there are a lot of reasons to be concerned about Site C, including concerns related to the project’s costs, the treaty rights of affected First Nations, the environmental impacts of the dam, and the actual value of the land which will be submerged.

For instance, desmog highlights the incredible agricultural fertility of the land which is slated to be submerged. Neutral experts estimate that the land could be used to grow enough fruit and vegetables to meet the nutritional requirements of one million people each year. Given the fact that B.C. relies on California’s increasingly precarious harvests for a substantial share of its food imports, this raises serious questions about whether damming is the best use to which this land can be put.

Additionally, a coalition of affected First Nations have brought forth evidence which raises significant concerns about the impact of Site C on the region’s groundwater. The region is also the site of intensive hydraulic fracturing (fracking), a practice now well-known to cause major earthquakes, and there are concerns both that the toxic fluids used in fracking will make their way into the groundwater due to increased pressure from the dam and that fracking-related earthquakes could pose a threat to the dam’s structural integrity.

The project doesn’t lack for critics from a financial point of view, either. NDP energy critic and one-time party leader Adrian Dix was blistering in an interview with the Alaska Highway News, charging that B.C. Hydro is essentially “chasing customers” and that the province’s support for the project amounts to a massive subsidy for the energy industry. (If you’re into the wonky, technical policy side of issues like this, definitely check out that AHN article – they do a typically fantastic job of summarizing a complex issue.)

On top of all this is the fundamental issue of Indigenous consent. Local Treaty 8 First Nations have apparently never given their consent for this project, which will be constructed on their traditional lands.

All of these various tensions, and many more besides, culminated in the direct-action land occupation which has grabbed so much media attention. But many of these grievances are also working their way through the courts.

The resistance against Site C is yet another example of the effective dual-approach strategy of disruptive get-in-the-way land defence tactics and skillful legal appeals on the grounds of treaty violations that First Nations across (so-called) Canada have so successfully deployed to delay or kill proposed pipeline projects.

As for Justin Trudeau, I wouldn’t hold my breath on him coming to the rescue here. Eventually, his friendly and aspirational words will be so glaringly outweighed by his actual record on First Nations sovereignty issues that these appeals will end, but for now, because he still enjoys the benefit of the doubt with a lot of folks, call-outs like this remain an effective piece of political theatre, neatly highlighting and dramatizing the conflict inherent in the Liberals’ pledges to be a friend to industry and to respect Indigenous rights.

Also, all politics being local, this whole controversy ought to be viewed through the lens of British Columbia’s upcoming election. It’s now or never for Site C, assuming the polls stay steady and the NDP wins next year, and assuming the NDP stand by their energy platform. Granted, those are two big assumptions – the NDP were considered shoe-ins to win the 2013 B.C. election at this time in 2012, and even if they do win next year, we all know that the relationship between a party’s campaign pledges and its actual decisions once in power is always pretty distant. Still, for the folks who stand to benefit from Site C’s construction, both within the government bureaucracy and outside of it, there must be a real sense of urgency to this project which perhaps explains the injunctions, the pressing forward despite ongoing appeals, and the willingness to incur bad press in the short term.

The province is clearly nervous that this opportunity to push Site C through will be stymied by popular resistance – and when you’re making the government nervous, you’ve gotta be doing something right. Solidarity with the Treaty 8 Stewards of the Land and their allies!

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