Justin Trudeau’s government has quietly issued its first batch of permits for the Site C dam — allowing construction to move forward on the $8.8 billion BC Hydro project despite ongoing legal challenges by two First Nations.
The federal-provincial review panel’s report on Site C found the 1,100 megawatt dam will result in significant and irreversible adverse impacts on Treaty 8 First Nations.
Caleb Behn, who is from West Moberly First Nation, one of the nations taking the federal government to court, says Trudeau has broken his promise.
“It’s 19th century technology being permitted with 19th century thinking and I expected more from the Trudeau government,” he said. “These permits were our last best hope to resolve this.”
“These permits suggest very strongly that, at least these ministries, if not Trudeau’s entire cabinet, are unwilling to engage in reconciliation with indigenous peoples. I thought this country could be more.”
Charlie Angus, MP for Timmins-James Bay and NDP critic for Indigenous and Northern Affairs, echoed those sentiments.
“The Liberals seem to be thinking that if they say the right things, it’s somehow the same as doing the right things.”
Trudeau has emphasized building a new relationship with indigenous peoples since taking office in October. He included the following paragraph in every ministerial mandate letter:
“No relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous Peoples. It is time for a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples, based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership.” tweet
But with the issuing of the Site C permits, doubts have been cast on that promise.
“We hear from all the key ministers about the nation-to-nation relationship and then they rubber stamp and go ahead with all the big projects,” Angus said.
For Behn, who was the subject of a documentary called Fractured Land last year, the sense of disappointment was palpable.
“What do they care about a backwater in northern B.C. that only has 40,000 voters?” he asked. “If you spent $9 billion on solar panels, geothermal … you wouldn’t have to run roughshod over indigenous rights."
Liberals Ignore Calls to Delay Permits
The permits allow BC Hydro to block the flow of the Peace River and disrupt fisheries, activities that require federal permission. Until now, the Liberal government hadn’t issued any permits for the dam (the only federal permits issued were doled out during the last election by former prime minister Stephen Harper).
The Site C dam will flood more than 100 kilometres of river valley and impact 13,000 hectares of agricultural land — including flooding 3,800 hectares of farmland in the Agricultural Land Reserve, an area nearly twice the size of the city of Victoria.
Groups ranging from Amnesty International to the David Suzuki Foundation to the Royal Society of Canada have called on Trudeau to halt construction of the dam.
“The people of Treaty 8 have said no to Site C. Any government that is truly committed to reconciliation with indigenous peoples, to respecting human rights and to promoting truly clean energy must listen,” stated a letter sent to the federal government in February.
Federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May has called Site C the “litmus test” for the federal government’s commitment to a new relationship with indigenous peoples.
“It is agonizing to witness the starting gun for a race between bulldozers and justice,” May said in a statement in which she expressed “deep disappointment” with the federal government.
The Royal Society of Canada described the Site C Joint Review Panel report as the strongest and most negative review to be ignored by government.
In its report, the panel wrote that it couldn’t conclude that the power from Site C was needed on the schedule presented, adding: “Justification must rest on an unambiguous need for the power and analyses showing its financial costs being sufficiently attractive as to make tolerable the bearing of substantial environmental, social and other costs.”
The panel recommended the project be reviewed by the B.C. Utilities Commission — however, the B.C. and federal governments approved the dam without further review in late 2014.
Was Consultation With First Nations Adequate?
West Moberly First Nation and Prophet River First Nation will appear in a federal court in Montreal in September to fight their case.
"Sitting down and consulting with the provincial and federal government is a waste of time," said Chief Roland Willson of West Moberly First Nation. "The only option we have is to challenge them in court."
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans responded to DeSmog Canada’s request for comment on the issuing of Site C permits with the following statement:
"For the past seven months, DFO has consulted potentially affected Indigenous groups on the department’s review of BC Hydro’s application for authorization for the main civil construction works. In particular, DFO contacted the Prophet River and West Moberly First Nations, along with ten other potentially affected indigenous groups. DFO officials have made significant efforts to provide opportunities for input, including a July 18 face-to-face meeting between Minister LeBlanc and West Moberly First Nations Chief Roland Willson and Prophet River First Nation Chief Lynette Tsakoza. tweet
DFO will continue to engage with Indigenous groups that have raised concerns about the project to ensure that their concerns continue to be heard and taken into account." tweet
Willson told DeSmog Canada the July 18th meeting marked the first time in six years that his nation has met with an official federal decision-maker on the Site C file.
"We met in Vancouver for about an hour. They sat there and took their notes and shook their heads in disbelief and then hopped on a plane back to Ottawa," Willson said.
"That whole process was to check the box. They haven’t responded to any one of our concerns. If we don’t go, they get to check the box beside the other box saying that we refuse to consult with them. There’s no box anywhere that says ‘this was meaningful.’ The only box is did we show up or didn’t we."
Willson said the Liberals have forgotten their election promises.
Democracy group LeadNow has launched a phone action across Canada to encourage citizens to "flood the phone lines before they flood the Peace Valley." They are asking Canadians to call their MPs and let them know it is unacceptable for Trudeau to issue permits while there’s an outstanding First Nations legal challenge about the Site C dam. RAVEN Trust is also raising funds to support the First Nations legal challenge.
Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline Overturned Due to Lack of Consultation
Recently, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the federal government failed to meet even a basic standard of First Nations consultation on another controversial B.C. proposal — the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.
With that ruling, the approval of the pipeline was overturned.
“The inadequacies — more than just a handful and more than mere imperfections — left entire subjects of central interest to the affected First Nations, sometimes subjects affecting their subsistence and well-being, entirely ignored,” the judges wrote in their ruling.
“Many impacts of the project — some identified in the Report of the Joint Review Panel, some not — were left undisclosed, undiscussed and unconsidered.”
The question of whether there has been adequate consultation ultimately rests with the courts — but if the Site C dam approval is overturned, a whole lot of public money will be at risk.
Muskrat Falls Boondoggle 'Almost Identical' to Site C
We need look no further than the Muskrat Falls debacle in Newfoundland to learn what happens when provinces embark on mega-dam projects without a proven need for the power.
The 824-megawatt Muskrat Falls hydro project now under construction on the Lower Churchill has nearly doubled in cost since first beginning construction (from $6.2 billion to $11.4 billion).
Stan Marshall, the CEO of Nalcor, Newfoundland’s provincial power corporation, has called the project a “boondoggle.”
"It was a gamble and it's gone against us," he told reporters last month.
By 2022, the domestic rate for power in the province is expected to nearly double. For the average homeowner, Nalcor estimates this could mean an extra $150 per month in power costs.
"The generation and transmission project was much too large than was necessary to meet the energy requirements of the province," he said.
"The original capital cost analysis, estimates and schedule was very aggressive and overly optimistic and just didn't account for many of the risks that were known, or should've been known, at the time.”
Muskrat Falls went ahead without review by Newfoundland’s Public Utilities Board and in defiance of the advice of the joint federal-provincial review panel.
“It’s almost an identical case,” Marc Eliesen, former CEO of BC Hydro, told DeSmog Canada.
“It’s clear even more so as each day goes by that there really is no business case for Site C, especially with Hydro’s own electricity demand decreasing significantly.”
BC Hydro’s recent annual report shows that demand projections were off by nearly half a Site C dam last year.
Can The Site C Dam Be Stopped?
With the federal permits in place and B.C. Premier Christy Clark vowing to get the dam “past the point of no return” before the next election, the big question is: can Site C still be stopped?
Eliesen points to examples from other provinces where projects have been halted mid-way.
For instance, in the 1970s, Manitoba Hydro began to build a dam on the Nelson River called the Limestone generating station. After 2.5 years of construction, it became apparent that the long-term power forecasts had changed and construction was suspended.
“They stopped, not withstanding construction for 2.5 years on a generation station that was larger than Site C,” Eliesen said.
“Can you postpone, can you suspend, can you cancel Site C? Basically the experience in other jurisdictions shows that you can if the end result shows that the cost to the ratepayer will be more than if you postpone or suspend.”
The Limestone project resumed seven years later in 1985 once a major export contract was negotiated with Minnesota. Eliesen was chairman of Manitoba Hydro at the time.
“If you want to export the power, you have to make sure it’s exported on a firm power demand basis,” Eliesen said. “Any firm power deal would have to be made in advance on any decision to construct something in British Columbia. It would be folly to think otherwise.”
Selling power at the interruptable rate (often five to six times lower than the firm rate) means you don’t cover the true cost of service.
“You’re going to lose your shirt on it,” Eliesen says. “You’re going to sell power at a price that is less than it cost to create it.”
Image: Caleb Behn via Zack Embree and Fractured Land