Site C Dam Contruction aerial.

BC Hydro Shows Trump-Style Attacks on Media Can and Do Happen in Canada

When Donald Trump held his first news conference this month following his election as U.S. president, observers worldwide decried his shameless attack on the media and his critics.

In an onslaught against the press, Trump labelled CNN “terrible” and “fake news,” lambasted the digital-media powerhouse BuzzFeed as a “failing pile of garbage,” then turned his sights on the BBC, calling the news outlet, “another beauty,” and refusing to answer a reporter’s questions.

Could something similar ever happen in Canada? You bet it could.

In B.C., a slightly abridged version of Trump’s scorched-earth offensive against the media and his critics is already underway, led by BC Hydro, with disquieting consequences for the principles of freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

BC Hydro’s attacks on the media and critics centre on the $8.8-billion Site C dam, which the government has vowed to push past the “point of no return,” in the words of Premier Christy Clark, before voters head to the polls in May, even though there is compelling evidence that B.C. doesn’t need Site C’s electricity and Clark still searches for a buyer for the dam’s power.

The Premier’s Office and B.C. Energy Minister Bill Bennett have also been directly involved in the coordinated offensive, a strong indication of BC Hydro’s waning independence and waxing politicization.

From the New York Times and DeSmog Canada to Amnesty International and the Royal Society of Canada, BC Hydro’s reaction to critical Site C articles and reports has become increasingly inappropriate over the past eight months as the provincial election draws near and the Liberal party seeks a fifth term in office.

The reactions reached new fervour this month when BC Hydro issued a rant of a news release maligning a Times story on Site C, even going so far as to question the reporter’s personal motives. Bennett, saying the press release didn’t go nearly far enough, called the reporter “not fair” and “not professional.”

That followed other BC Hydro news releases questioning the content of an Amnesty report critical of Site C and the integrity of an unrelated statement from the Royal Society calling for an immediate halt to the dam, which the society said would cause more ecological damage than any project ever examined in the history of Canada’s environmental assessment act.

A Site C public opinion poll conducted by Insights West, according to a different BC Hydro press release, was “not likely to be an accurate reflection of public opinion,” while an article in Business in Vancouver was labelled as just plain “wrong.”

Even a Province opinion piece I wrote about Site C came under fire when BC Hydro issued a news release, containing text approved by Clark’s office, trying to discredit the piece, which questioned BC Hydro’s civil lawsuit against Peace Valley farmers and First Nations members who are trying to stop Site C, accusing them of serious charges such as “conspiracy” and seeking financial damages from them. Notably, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association calls the ongoing suit a matter of “grave concern” because of its potential to put a chill on freedom of expression.

For former BC Hydro CEO Marc Eliesen, who said Site C was a “white elephant” that would cause hydro bills in B.C., already scheduled for a 28-per-cent increase over five years, to climb to the point where they would be “devastating,” BC Hydro also recently brandished some Trump-style behaviour.

The Crown corporation suggested in its news release about The Times story that Eliesen, a highly respected professional who was also CEO of Ontario Hydro and the chairman of Manitoba Hydro, was 20 years out of date, while lambasting the newspaper for not including a quote from BC Hydro’s current CEO — an ironic quibble considering that BC Hydro, like Trump, cherry-picks which lines of inquiry it will respond to from reporters and which it pointedly chooses to ignore.

The Times reporter, after writing a second story, this one calling B.C. the “Wild West” of political cash, tweeted that B.C. is like a Banana Republic.

Banana Republic or Granola Republic, we all have a stake in these continuing attacks and should be concerned about our provincial government’s creeping Trump-style treatment of the media and Site C critics.

That rabbit hole south of the border should be a cautionary tale, not a subterranean destination for B.C.

Image: Worker camp construction for the Site C dam. Photo: Garth Lenz/DeSmog Canada

Sarah Cox is an award-winning author and journalist based in Victoria, B.C. She got her start in journalism at UBC’s…

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