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First Nations Chief Hopeful For Stop to Site C, More Balanced Approach to Resource Extraction

Roland Willson is a practical man. As chief of the West Moberly First Nation in northeastern B.C., he’s got to be.

“The natural gas industry is the main source of employment,” Willson said over coffee in Victoria this week, before heading into meetings with the B.C. NDP and B.C. Green parties. “It’s a natural resource economy up there.”

Of all the industrial activity happening on his traditional territory — ranging from fracking to forestry to coal mining — one development takes the cake: the Site C dam.

With B.C.’s new NDP-Green alliance, and its promise to send the $9 billion Site C for an independent review by the B.C. Utilities Commission (BCUC), there’s reason for Willson to be hopeful.

“We are hopeful that this stupid project is going to get stopped. They’ve done nothing that can’t be undone so far. The trees will grow back. The animals will come back,” Willson. "I'm pretty confident that if it goes to the BCUC, it'll be deemed non-viable."

Still, Willson isn’t holding his breath.

“Politicians are politicians. We saw that when Trudeau came in. He made all these promises and then those promises just went up in a big puff of smoke.”

Last July the Trudeau government quietly issued permits for work on the Site C dam, despite promises of a new relationship with indigenous peoples. At that time, the West Moberly First Nation and Prophet River First Nation were still waiting for their day in court.

“It’s a dysfunctional relationship and we’re forced to live it over and over,” Willson said of dealings with government and BC Hydro, comparing it to the treatment of indigenous people in residential schools.

“They’re not taking our children away but they’re taking our land away. It is a continuation of their cultural genocide.”

As for the raging debate about job losses if Site C is delayed or stopped altogether, Willson said there are other ways to create jobs.

“I think we should immediately go into geothermal discussions,” he said.

“If Saskatchewan can build a geothermal plant, why the hell isn’t B.C.? Especially when they know there’s geothermal potential here. We’ve asked to partner with them on it.”

The Canadian Geothermal Association has said that B.C. is home to enough geothermal energy to power the entire province. The federal-provincial panel that reviewed the Site C dam found the province’s efforts to investigate geothermal to be sorely lacking.

“The low level of effort is surprising, especially if it results in a plan that involves large and possibly avoidable environmental and social costs,” the panel concluded.

In his meetings in Victoria, Willson intended to raise the issue of BC Hydro’s chosen route for the new highway through the Peace Valley, which cuts straight through a sacred area for the Dunne-za.

“There’s absolutely no reason for them to have realigned the road to put it where it is,” Willson said. “It’s within 50 metres of the sweat lodge and right through the grave site.”

“That’s one of the last spots in the Peace Valley that we have left to lose.”

The alternative highway route would run further away from the reservoir and avoid the houses in the valley and the First Nations sacred sites, but BC Hydro has said it’s less preferred due to less room for passing lanes and geotechnical conditions.

Willson also planned to invite NDP Leader John Horgan and Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver to attend this year’s Paddle for the Peace on July 8. An added benefit of having the leaders in the north would be to show them the impacts of shale gas development.

“The rapid pace of development is mind-blowing. The fracking. The use of water,” Willson said.

“The problem with the extraction industry is that B.C. loses their mind with it.”

Instead of slowing down to study the impacts of fracking, like Quebec and New York State did, “B.C. was full bore,” Willson said.

“They started the industry before they did the groundwater studies, before they understood what was going on.”

“We’re supportive of development, but there’s got to be a balanced approach.”

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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