The 10th annual Paddle for the Peace was the most emotional I've witnessed since joining the annual solidarity float down northeast BC’s majestic Peace River in protest of the proposed Site C dam.
Recently dethroned Agricultural Land Commission Chair Richard Bullock wrestled with tears as he spoke about the need to leave the Peace in peace rather than ask it to give another inch (upstream of Site C the river endures the WAC Bennett and Peace Canyon dams, as well as the 1,773 square kilometre Williston Reservoir, seventh largest in world by volume); Union of BC Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillip had to pause to gather himself as he described his long involvement in the battle to protect the river, his determination to ensure his grandchildren will be able to enjoy its meanders, and his willingness to face arrest to stop Site C; and a grimness in the eyes of many of the 1000-plus participants belied the festive air of post-Paddle events.
And for good reason. The Stop Site C Campaign has navigated its fair share of turbulence since the 2014 Paddle: last fall the federal and BC governments issued their environmental assessment approvals despite recommendations by the Joint Review Panel that the project undergo further study; in December the BC government made a final investment decision to go ahead with the dam; two weeks before the Paddle the Peace Valley Landowners’ Association lost their application to the BC Supreme Court to quash the EA approvals; and a week later, BC Hydro received its construction approvals from the Province.
This string of green lights blinked on despite staunch opposition from Treaty 8 First Nations who claim Site C would infringe their treaty rights; resistance by local landowners and residents opposed to losing their lands and livelihoods to flooding; calls from over 30 BC municipalities and the Greater Vancouver Regional Board - which represents 23 local governments and 2.5 million people - for a moratorium on Site C pending further review by the BC Utilities Commission and Agricultural Land Commission; and even a public declaration by Harry Swain, chair of the Joint Review Panel appointed to conduct the environmental assessment of Site C, that the province’s refusal to further investigate Site C amounted to a “dereliction of duty.” On the heels of his removal as ALC chair, Bullock called Site C a “sin against humanity.”
So what is Site C, anyway?
Juxtaposing the staunch nature of Site C’s opposition is its surprising narrowness; despite the size, cost, controversy and significance of the dam’s impacts, as well as the fact that many of those impacts would be felt throughout the province, in 2014 only four in ten British Columbians were reported to have heard about the project.
A hydroelectric project that would transform over 100 kilometres of the Peace River and its tributaries into a reservoir, Site C has been on the books since the 1950s. Myths, data gaps and misleading information about the project abound. Let’s separate the wheat from the chaff.
Site C would:
● Be paid for by British Columbians, through rising BC Hydro bills.
● Cause significant adverse impacts on fish habitat and fish, plant and wildlife species.
● Add to “a steady process of erosion of access to healthy and unencumbered lands and waters for Aboriginal peoples and others to use today and in the future,” risking the extinction of “entire Aboriginal cultures and practices of Aboriginal and treaty rights” (JRP Report, pg. 119).
Myths and knowledge gaps
● Site C would power 450,000 homes in BC. While not technically untrue, the figure is misleading. Increases in electricity demand by industrial customers like mining, oil and gas facilities, as well as port and pipeline operators, account for a significant portion of future provincial energy needs. While Site C could electrify a lot of homes, the dam would power fracking, mining and pipelines in northeast BC.
● BC needs Site C. Actually, as the Joint Review Panel found, other sources could meet BC’s energy and capacity needs until at least 2028, BC Hydro has not established an unequivocal need for Site C’s power beyond that time, and in any event, the “need” for the project is based on arbitrary policies that prevent BC Hydro from relying on other sources of power.
● There is no other feasible way to produce Site C’s energy. In fact, the Joint Review Panel found that there are number of competitive alternatives to Site C (JRP Report, pg. 298).
● Site C is the cheapest option. Again, perhaps not. The Geothermal Association of BC believes that geothermal energy could provide enough firm power to meet BC’s needs more cheaply than Site C. But as the Joint Review Panel found, BC Hydro’s failure to explore the province’s geothermal potential (as directed by the BC Utilities Commission thirty years ago) has left it with a dearth of information.
How did we get here?
The Joint Review Panel’s ultimate recommendation on Site C was to wait until a clearer need for the project presented itself. As we have previously blogged:
[The Panel’s] conclusion was clear: Site C would have significant environmental and social consequences that would be unfairly borne by locals, those costs could only be justified by an unambiguous need for its power, and BC Hydro has failed to prove that we need that energy, at least not on the timelines it proposed.
So in the face of such firm and well-founded opposition to Site C and its own reviewing body’s recommendation against proceeding with the dam, how have all those green lights presented themselves?
Since at least 2010 - long before any formal decision-making process began - there has been speculation that Site C was a done deal. Indeed, the provincial government has been paving the way for Site C for years, undoing the systems in place to ensure good governance of such major public projects. In 2010 it included in the Clean Energy Act a provision exempting Site C from a review by the BC Utilities Commission, the independent body tasked with conducting the exact sorts of inquiries that the Joint Review Panel found Site C still needed. Similar policy constraints have cut off alternatives to Site C, such as relying on out-of-province energy or the capacity of single-cycle gas turbines to keep the lights on during the dark days of winter when demand for energy is highest.
During the environmental assessment hearings, a letter from Energy Minister Bill Bennett emerged that made clear the province’s determination to see Site C proceed. Addressed to the chair of BC Hydro, it contained an assurance that the government would “take appropriate action to ensure that the requirements of the Agricultural Land Commission Act will not apply to any of the lands potentially affected by the Project.”
True to its word, this April Cabinet enacted Order in Council No. 148, which removed from the Agricultural Land Reserve the lands within the project’s zone. The largest exemption from the ALR in its 43-year history was done with the stroke of a pen, bypassing the independent Agricultural Land Commission established to oversee such removals and no other public processes. The move prompted the North Central Local Government Association to pass a resolution calling for the Order to be rescinded, but the government held firm.
Why should I care?
Beyond the fact that anyone with regular BC Hydro bills will end up paying for the $9 billion project, why should British Columbians - especially its urban residents who are far removed from the dam’s obvious adverse impacts - muster the energy to care about a project over a thousand kilometers to the north?
Food security, for one. Much of the former ALR land that would be flooded by Site C is some of BC’s most important for provincial food security. Located in a warm, alluvial valley with a south aspect and the long growing days of northern summers, the Peace River Valley is capable of growing a wide range of crops, including melons, tree fruit, berries and an array of vegetables. With drought no longer just news from California and overseas, BC would be wise to hold onto its most capable food-growing lands.
BC’s relationship with First Nations, for another. Site C would occur on the lands of, and significantly impact the rights of, a number of First Nations. As the Joint Review Panel heard from Aboriginal participants:
… Treaty 8 guarantees them the right to hunt, trap, and fish as they did before the Treaty was signed. They told the Panel that exercising that right means there is an obligation on all parties to the Treaty to ensure that there are sustainable populations of fish and animals. They said they are living up to the Treaty: they live in peace, they share the land, and they have stopped hunting caribou to try to preserve the remaining population. They fear that, if the Project goes ahead, they will again pay social and environmental costs but gain little, even though they will seek job training, guaranteed jobs, and financial benefits. They fear loss of access to graves and cultural sites, loss of hunting opportunities, loss of parts of their trap lines, loss of preferred species to fish, and poisoning from mercury in fish. All Aboriginal groups without exception asserted they will be directly and adversely affected by the Project. All but two Aboriginal groups opposed the Project. Of the remaining two, one favoured the Project and one was ambivalent.
In the wake of last year’s Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) watershed decision Tsilhqot’in Nation v British Columbia, power over land and resources in First Nations’ territories is shifting. Given that Site C would further erode the rights of Nations who have already disproportionately borne the burden of the province’s industrial development, the province would be wise (not to mention obligated) to obtain those groups’ consent before proceeding with any project, let alone one of Site C’s magnitude.
Finally, for democracy. As one law professor suggested, the environmental assessment may not have been more than lip service. Since 2001 the province has clawed back the systems designed to protect the environment and ensure fairness, transparency, accountability and due process in decision-making, many of which we have reported on: weakening BC’s Environmental Assessment Act in 2001; the passing of Bill 24 (weakening protection of 90% of the province’s ALR lands); a law paving the way for industrial exploration in provincial parks and a policy describing how industry can request boundary adjustments to accommodate such exploration; the above-mentioned Order-in-Council, and Mr. Bullock’s unlawful firing, to name a few.
It was during my first Paddle for the Peace in 2012 that the need to prevent Site C became near and dear to my heart. Like many others, I fell in love with the region upon my first view of the wide, graceful Peace arcing quietly between canola and hay fields on the north bank, and forested slopes of the south bank. I also fell in love with its communities, the cheerful and staunch locals who are determined to not lose their lands, livelihoods and ways of life to what appears to be more of a legacy project for southern politicians than a provincial need.
While there may have been a grim set to many pairs of eyes at this year’s Paddle, one thing was not on anyone’s faces: defeat. As anyone who has paddled its waters can attest, the Peace is worth fighting for, and the battle is far from over. Many of the paddlers out on the river last weekend successfully stopped Site C back in the 1980’s and they can do it again in 2015. But as David Suzuki told the post-Paddle audience, “victory” requires more than just a halt to the project; it entails a paradigm shift in the way we see our planet, and in our role as its inhabitants.
By Anna Johnston, Staff Counsel