Feds’ approach to B.C. dam approvals ‘like the Saudi Arms deal’: Opponents

Chelsea Nash
Silt is stirred up in the Peace Valley River as a result of preparatory construction for the Site C dam. Photo courtesy of Garth Lenz

The federal government is coming up on what will be a litmus test of its commitment to nation-to-nation relations with First Nations and to the environment, say those advocating for the shutdown of the massive BC Hydro development known as Site C in northeastern British Columbia. 

Ken Boon, president of the Peace Valley Landowner Association, and Rob Botterell, the lawyer representing the organization, visited Ottawa on April 27 to meet with officials from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans about their concerns of excessive sediment pollution caused by preparatory construction for the Site C dam, which, at a cost of close to $9 billion and a projected 10-year timeline, is described as one of the largest public infrastructure projects B.C. has ever seen.

The project has caused a stir among the First Nations groups who live in the area and use the land for gathering, trapping, fishing, and other cultural and spiritual practices, and landowners in the area who will be displaced as a result of the construction.

Mr. Boon is one of those landowners.

He said if the Site C project is to continue, he and his wife will lose their home.

“My wife’s family lived there, we live in her grandfather’s old house, so we have deep roots there especially on my wife’s side of the family,” he told The Hill Times during his visit to Ottawa last week.

Mr. Boon and Mr. Botterell are concerned that the federal government is turning a blind eye to Site C, and said they felt they needed to meet with officials to inform them “so they can’t say their hands are tied,” said Mr. Boon.

The federal government is currently deciding on whether to issue a permit for civil works in relation to the hydroelectric dam to go ahead.


Mr. Boon said the government seems to be hiding behind the fact that there are several related cases currently before the courts.

The project was approved in October 2015 by both the provincial and federal governments, after the application underwent a three-year joint review panel overseen by both governments.

Regarding fisheries, the panel concluded, “the Project would cause significant adverse effects on fish and fish habitat,” and that “there would be a reduction to fish health and survival due to sedimentation during construction and headpond and reservoir filling.”

Mr. Boon wanted to stress that the Peace Valley Landowner Association is not against energy development projects. But he said he has a lot to lose if this project goes ahead, and he doesn’t feel like anyone is being held accountable for potential infractions being committed at the site.

“What we are doing is looking out for the interests of the landowners in the valley…we want to know that if permits are being issued for this project that they are being reviewed properly and that this is being done right. I don’t feel it has to this point,” said Mr. Boon.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, land advocate Helen Knott, and Mr. Boon all said they believe the warnings in the Joint Review Panel, including of damage to fish populations and infringements on indigenous treaty rights, were ignored by the previous federal government when it decided to go ahead with the project anyway, citing economic benefits.

“I guess it was Stephen Harper trying to do [B.C. Premier] Christy Clark a favour,” said Ms. May. “It’s all politics.”

The project opponents say the Liberal government should be held responsible for the current state of the project, even if it didn’t make the initial decision to allow the dam to be built.

“So you take all that together and you think…this new government is going to say: ‘This is like Saudi tanks, sorry the previous government made the decision, we’re just going along with it’? That won’t wash,” Ms. May told The Hill Times.

Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion has been under fire for the way he and his government framed a deal to sell arms to Saudi Arabia. Initially, the government claimed that its hands were tied because the deal had been approved by the previous Conservative government, but Mr. Dion was criticized when it was revealed he actually played a key role in confirming the deal in April.

Mr. Botterell and Mr. Boon echoed Ms. May.

“I think what’s happening in the federal bureaucracy is ‘Oh, we’re done here. Too bad, but—sort of like the Saudi Arms deal—it was signed. We really feel for you, but that was then and this is now. And we’ll be different going forward.’ And what we’re saying is ‘No, no, going forward is right now,’” Mr. Botterell said. “The fishery is going to be ruined for the First Nations. You’d better be sure that this is the least impactful solution and you’ve got a chance right now to do it right,” said Mr. Botterell.

An emailed statement from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans reads: “DFO has received and is reviewing BC Hydro’s application for a Fisheries Act Section 35(2)(b) authorization for the Site C main civil works (i.e., dam, generating station, spillway, and associated works) and operations. DFO is currently consulting potentially affected indigenous groups prior to making a decision on issuance of an authorization.”

Minister for Fisheries and Oceans Hunter Tootoo, in an interview with The Hill Times, reiterated the fact that the department would be consulting with First Nations groups before deciding whether to issue the permit to BC Hydro.

When asked whether he was considering denying the permit, he said: “My officials and chief of staff met with representatives from over there. There was information provided, we’re reviewing that information and, you know, part of the application from BC Hydro. We’ll follow the process, we’ll be consulting with the indigenous groups over there before any decision is made whether to move forward or not.”

The Member of Parliament for the area, Conservative Bob Zimmer (Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies, B.C.) did not respond to a request for comment.

While construction has already started on the project, Mr. Boon remains hopeful it could still be halted.

“The activity that has happened to date, it’s reversible,” he said. “It’s just a small part of what will be needed for this project. There’s not a dam being built yet, it’s all prep work leading up to this project. Myself as an individual, I’m still hopeful that a sober second thought will be done with this. And this is a key one, these federal permits.”

[Top photo: Silt is stirred up in the Peace Valley River as a result of preparatory construction for the Site C dam. Photo courtesy of Garth Lenz]