Trudeau needs to take a hard second look at the Site C dam

By Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.

Every day, federal and provincial governments make decisions about resource development projects. Some are relatively benign decisions, with few or no impacts on First Nations rights. Others carry the potential for massive and irreversible impacts on the rights of First Nations.

British Columbia’s planned Site C hydroelectric dam falls into the latter category. It will have devastating impacts on the rights and territories of Treaty 8 First Nations in B.C. Approval for Site C means approval for flooding the last pristine stretch of the Peace River valley west of Fort St. John, turning it into a massive reservoir.

Indigenous peoples in northeastern B.C. rely on the Peace Valley to provide for their families and maintain their way of life. It is a wellspring of their culture — a place to hunt, fish, gather plant medicines and engage in ceremony. The rich valley floor and hillsides are particularly important in a region already squeezed by the construction of two large dams and massive, ongoing oil and gas development. There are fewer and fewer places left where Indigenous Peoples can exercise these crucial rights.

Site C would submerge graves and destroy sites of unique cultural and historic importance, prime farmland important to Indigenous and non-Indigenous families and wipe out some of the last, nearly-pristine ecosystems in the region.

These impacts are not in question. A federal-provincial environmental impact assessment concluded that the Site C dam would severely undermine the rights of Indigenous peoples. The review also concluded that this harm could never be undone.

The Harper government decided that, despite this finding, the project was nonetheless “justified” through cabinet-level decision making powers the government gave itself under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012. This is the same legislation that sparked the IdleNoMore Movement because of its impoverished vision of our collective environmental responsibilities.

Last July, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) passed a resolution supporting Treaty 8 in opposing Site C. Amnesty International also fully supports Treaty 8 First Nations in fighting for their cultural survival and respect for their fundamental human rights.

We feel Canada has a rule-of-law problem when governments make decisions approving major projects like Site C while consciously failing to examine and address acknowledged treaty infringement issues.

We are heartened by the fact that the new Liberal government has committed publicly to building a new relationship with Indigenous Peoples based on respect and recognition of rights in treaties, the Constitution and international human rights law. It also has promised to reform Canada’s environmental laws to bring them in line with Canada’s obligations toward Indigenous Peoples.

Reversing the approach of the previous federal government in these matters requires acknowledging and correcting the error made by the Harper cabinet in approving Site C without analysis of its impacts on treaty rights. We believe remedial action is needed. First, the government should hold discussions on treaty infringements with the affected First Nations. Then, cabinet should review the original decision — and impose a moratorium on further federal permitting in the interim.

First Nations are not opposed to all resource development; in fact, we’re often project proponents and partners in resource development. The principle of free, prior and informed consent set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples means that federal and provincial governments are required to recognize that First Nations have the right to determine, with federal and provincial governments, what happens in their traditional territories.

This op-ed was originally published in iPolitics on December 9, 2015.

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