Ending months of speculation, Premier John Horgan announced Monday that construction of the Site C dam on B.C.’s Peace River will continue even though the cost of the troubled project has climbed to $10.7 billion and the government faces a potentially pricey legal challenge from First Nations.
“This is a very divisive issue,” Horgan said at a press conference. “I don’t have a magic solution but I have the best solution that we can come up with in the time I have as premier to make sure that we’re doing the least amount of damage…and making the best of a bad situation.”
Horgan justified approval for Site C — the most expensive public infrastructure project in B.C.’s history — on the grounds that the previous Liberal government successfully pushed the project “past the point of no return” and that terminating it will be too costly for British Columbians, a rationale immediately disputed by former BC Hydro CEO Marc Eliesen, academics and energy experts.
Eliesen warned that Site C will be a long term “calamity” for British Columbians.
Amnesty International and First Nations Outraged
Amnesty International, meanwhile, slammed the B.C. government for violating basic human rights, saying that Site C violates United Nations guidelines for forced evictions and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that the NDP government had pledged to uphold.
Craig Benjamin, Amnesty Canada’s Indigenous Rights campaigner, said forcing 70 Peace Valley residents like Ken and Arlene Boon from their homes or property for Site C contravenes UN guidelines protecting the right to housing — which, according to Benjamin, “is not just your immediate home but the place where you live and raise your family.”
Pushing people off their homes and land should only be done as a “last resort,” said Benjamin, adding Site C fails that test. UN guidelines hold that the BC government must show a “higher standard of necessity” than the 12 per cent increase in hydro rates over 10 years that Horgan said would ensue if Site C were terminated, Benjamin told DeSmog Canada.
“These types of rationalizations don’t deal with the harm being done the people whose homes are being lost.”
Site C, in the traditional homeland of Treaty 8 First Nations, will flood 83 kilometres of the heritage Peace River and 45 kilometres of its tributary rivers and creeks — a total distance the equivalent of driving from Victoria to Nanaimo or Vancouver to Whistler.
Two Treaty 8 First Nations immediately announced they will seek a court injunction to stop the project and will commence a civil action on the grounds that Site C infringes on treaty rights. “They have more than what they need in front of them to stop this project,” West Moberly First Nations chief Roland Willson told DeSmog Canada.
Willson said his nation “saw the writing on the wall” when Horgan declined to stop construction of Site C pending an independent review of the project by the watchdog B.C. Utilities Commission. “I don’t think they had any intention of cancelling it,” he said. “I was hoping for so much more.”
Willson said the decision “doesn’t say much” about the NDP government’s commitment to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a sentiment echoed by Benjamin.
“The violation is deeper than the UN Declaration,” said Benjamin. “It’s multi-part. One part of the violation is the violation of Indigenous peoples’ rights to make their own decisions. Clearly at no point has there been consideration of the right of Indigenous peoples to say ‘we want to use the land in other ways.’ That’s never been on the table.”
The second violation is the substantial harm that Site C would cause, Benjamin said. He said both common sense and Site C’s environmental impact assessment show that flooding such a large extent of the Peace River Valley and its tributaries — one of the “last remaining places where people can still exercise their culture, take their kids out on the land to learn who they are” — will have a “devastating impact” on the ability of First Nations to exercise their human rights.
These rights include the rights to culture, health, a livelihood and the right to food, including food not purchased in a grocery store, Benjamin said. “These are fundamental human rights.”
Landowners “Not Moving”
Horgan’s announcement was met with tears, anger and disappointment by members of the Peace Valley Landowner Association, representing 70 residents who will lose homes, property, livelihoods and a traditional way of life in the valley to Site C.
Arlene Boon, whose third-generation family farm was expropriated last December for a Site C highway relocation, said she was too upset to talk. The Boons had been permitted to remain in their home, built by Arlene’s grandfather, pending the government’s final decision.
Ken Boon, president of the landowners’ association, said he was not impressed with Horgan’s rationale for continuing Site C.
“I can’t believe what a poor job they did spinning this,” said Boon, pointing to the government’s stated commitment to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as one example of the government using contradictory rationale to continue with the project.
He said the landowners need time to absorb the information about their impending displacement. “This is the biggest setback we’ve had for sure, but the opposition to this project has nine lives. We’ve had so many setbacks and we’ve always survived. We’re not moving. I’m not very good at predicting what will stop Site C but I think something will.”
Horgan’s announcement followed concerted lobbying efforts by NDP insiders and construction trade unions who are donors to the NDP, attempting to discredit some of the findings of an independent review of Site C by the watchdog B.C. Utilities Commission.
The independent review partially lifted the veil of secrecy that shrouded the project under the former Liberal government, revealing among many other issues that Site C is significantly over budget, behind schedule, burdened by financial and legal issues with its major civil works contractor, and beset with geotechnical difficulties — only two years into a nine-year construction timeline.
Calling the decision “sad and stupid,” Eliesen said that the only conclusion that can be reached from the BCUC final report, based on the economics, is that Site C should be terminated. “It looks like the referral for the independent review was inauthentic,” he said in an interview.
“Since the NDP for good economic and social reasons prior to the election argued against Site C, the only conclusion one can reach is that the entrenched bureaucracy, including that of BC Hydro, are pulling the strings.”
Today’s announcement reinforces the perception by Peace Valley residents and many Treaty 8 First Nations that successive BC governments have unofficially designated the Peace region as an industrial sacrifice zone.
The region is already known for its unbridled industrial development — including fracking, conventional oil and gas development, mining, forestry, and two previous large dams on the Peace River. Flooding the last remaining tract of the Peace River Valley left to First Nations to engage in their traditional practices — such as hunting and fishing — is unacceptable, said Willson.
Horgan acknowledged the impact of Site C on Indigenous peoples, noting that they have already endured “over 150 years of disappointment.”
“I am not the first person to stand before you and disappoint Indigenous people,” the premier said. “But I think I am the first to stand before you and say I am going to do my level best to make amends for a whole host of issues and decisions that previous governments have made to put Indigenous people in an unwinnable situation.”
UBC professor Karen Bakker pointed out that, even at the revised price tag of $10.7 billion, Site C still has the potential for “significant” cost overruns that B.C. ratepayers will have to shoulder.
The BCUC report pointed to geotechnical issues as one of Site C’s greatest financial risks, while the cost of First Nations court cases against Site C is another financial factor that must be considered, said Bakker, a Canada Research Chair in Political Ecology who co-authored several academic reports on Site C.
“I think the claim to saving money should be verified against the BCUC analysis to see if there are any discrepancies,” Bakker said in an interview. “There are still gaps [and] unanswered questions about the full cost implications for ratepayers.”