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Past the $16 billion point of no return

In this week’s newsletter, we talk to editor-in-chief Emma Gilchrist who reflects on our coverage of the controversial Site C dam, as the fight against the costliest public project in B.C.'s history comes to an end

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Peace River Valley
Earlier this year, three decades into a battle over what’s become the most expensive dam in Canadian history, a “mega trial” was set to begin that would finally determine whether or not the Site C project in northeastern B.C. infringes upon Treaty 8 Rights.

That didn’t happen. 

Instead, West Moberly First Nations began confidential discussions with BC Hydro, the federal attorney general and the province, bringing the fight against Site C to an end on June 27 — a bittersweet day for Chief Roland Willson.

“The final nail in the coffin was a while ago. They had no intention of stopping,” he told The Narwhal.

“And every time we drive by that development it’s going to be a constant reminder of what’s been done to us. Forcing us into this situation like this is not something to be proud of. They beat us into submission, basically.”

Upon completion, 128 kilometres of the Peace River and its tributaries will be flooded, putting Indigenous burial grounds, hunting and fishing areas, habitat of endangered species and some of Canada’s richest farmland up to under 50 metres of water.

Our editor-in-chief Emma Gilchrist, who has been covering Site C since 2014 — when a government review found that the dam would have “significant adverse effects” for First Nations — said the fight against the $16 billion dam slowly lost steam as construction plowed ahead over the last seven years.

“For quite a while, it felt like everyone hung their hopes on the West Moberly legal case as the last chance to stop the dam. But the lengthy wait for the court case to be heard meant that a judge would be extremely unlikely to halt construction, even if they ruled that the project had gone ahead despite violating Indigenous Rights,” she explained.
 
Photo of Chief Roland Willson

“It speaks to a real lack of access to justice for West Moberly, who never consented to this project and spent years and thousands of dollars on fighting back. They didn't want a settlement — they wanted to save the last intact stretch of the Peace River valley,” Emma said. 

For Emma, Site C was emblematic of flaws with the way governments permit mega projects. And this is precisely why reporting on it became such a key focus for The Narwhal. 

“Many of our earliest readers and members started following us because of our coverage of the Site C dam and other issues like it that weren’t receiving coverage anywhere else. It’s ultimately a story about fair process, Indigenous Rights and the complexities of ‘green energy,’ ” she said. 

Those complexities include outstanding questions about the project’s safety. As an investigation by The Narwhal revealed, government officials were aware of geotechnical issues due to the dam’s “weak foundation” more than a year before those details were shared with the public. Oh, and the price tag of the dam is now more than double what it was when it was reviewed in 2014, meaning less-impactful alternatives could have been built for far less money. Rest assured, we’ll continue to follow these developments, and the escalating costs for taxpayers, closely.

West Moberly will direct the benefits of its Site C settlement — which Chief Willson signed with a heavy heart — toward reclaiming and restoring land, revitalizing the community’s culture and “protecting the best of what’s left.”

Take care and don’t disturb the peace, 

Karan Saxena
Audience fellow
Headshot of Karan Saxena
 

The Narwhal in the world


Photojournalist Amber Bracken has won PEN Canada’s 2022 Ken Filkow Prize for her work in advancing press freedoms and freedom of expression in Canada.

Noting that press freedoms are not as sacrosanct as we’d like to think, the jury cited Bracken’s arrest on Wet’suwet’en territory, stating: “Amber’s story is a case study of the need to protect these fundamental freedoms even in Canada.”

Of course, it wasn’t just journalists who were arrested during RCMP raids last November — matriarchs and land defenders were also targeted by tactical units on the Gidimt’en occupation of a Coastal GasLink drill site. 

The RCMP raids have raised questions about media rights in Canada and the police force’s relationship with industry. Multiple investigations by The Narwhal later revealed that the RCMP changed its story about arresting journalists in the raid, while maintaining a daily presence in the region.
 
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