First Nations’ consent to the Site C dam should determine the project’s fate, according to Amnesty International Canada’s Craig Benjamin.
“At the end of the day with regard to human rights you can simply ask ‘what are First Nations saying?’ ”
“And if they’re saying no, we have to say no as well,” Benjamin, campaigner for human rights and indigenous peoples from Amnesty International Canada, told an audience gathered in Victoria this week.
Speaking at a public education event with West Moberly First Nations’ Chief Roland Willson, Benjamin said Canada is breaking its own laws when it comes to the rights of First Nations.
The West Moberly First Nation is launching a legal challenge of the B.C. government’s recent approval of the Site C dam, a $9 billion dollar hydroelectric project that will flood over 100 square kilometres of forest and rich agricultural farmland.
Benjamin, who recently traveled to the region, said the project poses a threat to First Nations’ cultural way of life: “It’s a violation of standards that exist in the international community, which Canada has sworn to uphold.”
“These are all fundamental human rights — the right to a healthy environment, to clean water, the right to one’s culture, the right to one’s identity, the right of indigenous peoples to make their own decisions about their lives and their futures.”
“These are all being threatened by the plan to proceed with this dam.”
Benjamin noted the recent Tsilhqot'in Supreme Court victory further protects indigenous rights and self-determination on traditional territory.
“One of the things that court decision did was to set out in the clearest possible language that if the government wants to tread on the rights of indigenous peoples there’s an extremely high standard that it has to meet of justification to show why the project should be allowed to go forward.”
But according to the government’s own standards, no project can “substantially deprive future generations of the benefit of the land,” he said. In addition the government must meet a duty to consult and accommodate and demonstrate the project’s objective meets the needs of general Canadians and indigenous peoples.
“These are requirements that our own Supreme Court set out.”
“And this plan fails every one of those tests and yet two levels of government want to proceed with it. Two levels of government want to fight it in the courts. Two levels of government want to expend all of their resources to pursue it even though the highest court of the land has already set out a test that this project doesn’t meet.”
He also argued that there is an “underside” to the claim of benefits (i.e. jobs) associated with construction of the Site C dam.
“All of the oil and gas development that has taken place up there has created a situation where the ratio of short-term workers to long-term residents in Fort St. John is four to one,” he said. This has caused housing prices to skyrocket and has placed a significant strain on the “social safety net” in the area.
In addition, Benjamin argued, the potential impact on the most vulnerable members of society — especially indigenous women — should not be overlooked.
“The reason why Amnesty International initially wanted to look at this is because of what we’re already seeing in Canada around the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women.”
In Canada indigenous women and girls are more than seven times more likely to experience violence in its most brutal and extreme forms, he said.
The circumstances in the region, which include housing shortages, strained medical services, massive gender wage inequality and a flood of transitory workers create a “perfect storm…to accentuate the injury against the lives of women.”
Image Credit: Chief Roland Willison. Photo by Garth Lenz