A caravan of Treaty 8 First Nations fighting the Site C dam arrived in Ottawa Tuesday, calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to halt the $9-billion project they say violates treaty rights.
The group arrives on Parliament Hill after a cross-Canada journey that brought them to the Federal Court of Appeal in Montreal on Monday, where a legal challenge by the West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations was heard.
“Anyone who reads the environmental assessment report can see that the Site C dam is an indisputable threat to our rights,” Roland Willson, chief of the West Moberly First Nation, said.
“Our nations are deeply grateful to all the organizations and individuals whose support has enabled us to continue this battle, but the fact remains that we wouldn’t have to go these lengths if the Trudeau government would act on the promises it has made to uphold our treaty, the Canadian constitution, and the UN Declaration [on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples].”
In July the Trudeau government issued two federal permits for the controversial project, a move that angered a broad coalition of Site C opponents and First Nations that say the permits broke the federal Liberals' promise of a renewed nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations. The permits apparently generated some controversy within the federal Liberal party, with Indigenous Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette from Winnipeg Centre coming out against the project and questioning whether adequate consultation with First Nations in B.C. was carried out.
Despite growing backlash, Trudeau has stayed quiet on the mega hydro dam.
Most recently, the Assembly of First Nations came out strongly against the dam, saying it violates the Canadian constitution, which enshrines aboriginal rights under section 35, as well as the UN Declaration, which has a clause about "free, prior and informed consent."
"Why don't they respect and follow their own constitution? Section 35. Existing aboriginal treaty rights," AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde said in an interview with the Canadian Press. "It really comes back to building a healthy, respectful relationship with indigenous peoples and we just don't see it happening here in this instance."
— DeSmog Canada (@DeSmogCanada) September 14, 2016
An environmental assessment found the project — which will flood 83 kilometres of Peace River valley and eliminate 5,500 hectares of primarily high-value agricultural land — would have severe, permanent and irreversible impacts on First Nations cultural and territorial practices, but the federal and provincial governments approved it in 2014.
Treaty 8, signed with the federal government in 1899, protects First Nations' right to hunt, fish, trap and gather medicines in perpetuity.
“The Peace River valley is one of the last places we can go out on the land with our elders and learn the stories and traditions that make us who we are,” Helen Knott, a member of the Prophet River First Nation who traveled to Ottawa with other community members, said.
“If governments can get away with simply ignoring our treaty, we’ll soon be left with nothing.”
First Nations fighting the project have received high-profile support from a large consortium of Canadian academics, including the Royal Society of Canada, which agrees the project infringes on indigenous rights.
An independent environmental assessment performed by the academics concluded the dam would “severely undermine” the ability of First Nations to carry out their cultural practices. Their assessment also found Site C is the most environmentally destructive project ever considered under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.
In August, international human rights watchdog Amnesty International released a report saying the Site C dam violates indigenous rights. Amnesty called on BC Hydro to halt all construction until legal challenges brought against the project by First Nations are heard in the courts.
The Amnesty report is called “The Point of No Return,” referencing a statement by B.C. Premier Christy Clark that the Site C damwill be brought “past the point of no return" before the next election.
First Nations and local landowners fighting the project hoped the Trudeau government would withhold federal permits, allowing time for legal challenges to make their way through the courts, but that hope was lost when two federal permits were granted in July.
NDP Indigenous and Northern Affairs Critic Charlie Angus joined First Nations leaders on Parliament Hill to condemn the Site C project and the federal government's recent permits.
“Why are we even here? Why is this necessary? We have a Prime Minister that promised a new relationship, a new nation to nation relationship,” Angus said. “We have a justice minister — for the first time ever — a Justice Minister who has been on the record saying a project like Site C runs roughshod over indigenous rights."
“If it’s before the courts, then why the hell did you sign those permits? That’s the question.”
Lynette Tsakoza, Chief of the Prophet River First Nation, said the whole situation casts a poor light on the environmental assessment process.
“The federal government’s actions in this case have eroded First Nations trust in regulatory processes that impact upon our rights,” she said.
Craig Benjamin, indigenous rights campaigner with Amnesty International Canada, said Canadians should be angry with the federal government’s treatment of this project.
“Anyone concerned about justice and human rights should be outraged by the federal government’s claim that the wide array of serious harms to First Nations this project would entail are ‘justified,’ especially given the fact that the need for the Site C dam remains in question and less harmful alternatives have never been properly considered,” Benjamin said.
In an unprecedented interview with DeSmog Canada, Harry Swain, chair of the joint federal-provincial panel tasked with reviewing the Site C project, said the government erred in approving the project because there was no demonstrated need for the electricity and alternatives to the dam hadn’t been fully explored.
Swain added the panel was asked to catalogue First Nations treaty and aboriginal rights, “but we were not to pass an opinion on them,” he said.
“We were not to say whether consultation had been adequate and so on and forth. If you are forbidden from talking about that, you can not come to a conclusion about the overall project,” he said.
More than 85,000 signatures calling on the federal government to halt the project have been collected by civil society organizations.
Amara Possian, campaign manager with LeadNow, a democracy advocacy organization fighting Site C said pressure is mounting on the federal government to address concerns about the project.
“The federal government’s public commitment to a new relationship with Indigenous peoples has clearly resonated with Canadians,” she said.
“But the public is demanding more than just words. They government’s promise to uphold the treaties, the constitution and the UN Declaration requires concrete action when these rights are threatened.”
Image: Prime Minister Photo Gallery