There is ample reason why the Liberal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s leadership should stop work at the $8.8-billion Site C dam and take a sober second look.
Last September, during the federal election campaign, Canada’s then-Conservative government under Stephen Harper quietly issued 14 permits allowing preparatory work at the Peace River dam to commence.
When news of the unusual timing surfaced in February, it was condemned by Harry Swain, whose distinguished civil-service career included work as deputy minister of Indian and Northern Affairs and who went on to chair the joint federal/provincial panel that reviewed the proposed hydroelectric project.
“Permits and licences are only issued [during an election] when a government considers the matter to be non-controversial and of no great public importance,” Swain said last month.
Clearly that is not the case with Site C, a dam that if built would have irreversible consequences for Treaty 8 First Nations and for some of the most fertile farmland in Canada.
Because of its obvious impacts on established treaty rights of First Nations, and because it got the green light during a government’s dying days in office, Trudeau should call a halt.
This can be legally accomplished in several ways, for example, by temporarily suspending the issuance of new federal permits. This approach would enable his government to fulfil its constitutional responsibility to protect fisheries and to address transportation and safety issues on navigable waters without rescinding the Site C approvals. The Trudeau government need not “turn back the clock” to fulfil its duty and its responsibility to deal honourably with First Nations.
To date, however, the Trudeau government’s silence on Site C has been deafening.
Trudeau promised a new, more respectful relationship with indigenous peoples. In his words, “no relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with indigenous peoples.”
First Nations leaders from across Canada took him at his word. They have repeatedly requested urgent action by the prime minister and key members of his cabinet, including Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, who speaks today in Victoria at a Liberal party biennial policy convention.
Their requests have been consistent and clear:
• Suspend construction of Site C until all legal challenges initiated by First Nations and still before the courts are finally determined.
• Conduct an open and transparent federal review of whether the project will unjustifiably infringe our constitutionally protected treaty rights.
• And please do what the federal/provincial panel chaired by Swain recommended — ensure the B.C. Utilities Commission reviews the need, cost and alternatives to Site C.
As a federal Liberal party member, I am deeply disappointed that these requests have fallen on deaf ears. Others attending the Liberal policy convention this weekend in Victoria might feel the same way.
Failing to deal honourably with First Nations is not the only reason for concern. There is compelling evidence to suggest that delaying the project is more financially advantageous than proceeding with it.
In documents filed in B.C. Supreme Court, respected U.S. energy economist Robert McCullough says we would save money by delaying construction. A one-year delay would save us $267 million, a five-year delay nearly $1.2 billion. That’s because rushing Site C through to completion means that B.C. Hydro would sell its unneeded power at a loss on export markets.
McCullough’s evidence came during a recent court case in which B.C. Hydro secured an injunction to have a Site C protest camp disbanded. Nevertheless, Justice Bruce Butler in rendering his decision noted that: “Persuasive arguments can be advanced against proceeding with it [Site C] at this time.”
In short, Trudeau has good reasons to push the pause button on Site C. He can argue persuasively that he has a duty to address First Nations concerns and he can underscore in doing so that he has the economic interests of British Columbians and Canadians at heart.
An outgoing government fast-tracked permits allowing construction to commence on a controversial and unnecessary hydro dam. A new government has assumed office promising to restore productive relations with Canada’s indigenous peoples.
The facts have changed. Trudeau’s government has a golden opportunity to make real change, too, and distance itself from the Harper government’s autocratic ways.
Rob Botterell has practised in the area of First Nations and environmental law for more than 20 years. He is a federal Liberal and represents the Peace Valley Landowner Association. He lives in Sidney.