The latest round in a legal battle over the province’s most controversial and largest infrastructure project has begun.
The West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations launched a lawsuit in BC Supreme Court this week to stop construction at the Site C dam because it breaches Treaty 8.
Negotiated in 1899, the treaty with the federal government opened up First Nation land for colonial settlement, but guaranteed Dene, Dunne-za and Cree in northeastern B.C. that they would be free to hunt, fish and trap as they had before entering into the agreement.
But the treaty never imagined three dams on the Peace River.
“The cumulative impact of the Bennett, Peace Canyon, and Site C Dams is to turn the Peace River into a series of reservoirs, destroying the unique cultural and ecological character of the Peace, severing the physical, practical, cultural and spiritual connection the Prophet River have with the Peace, and infringing Treaty Rights” says the lawsuit.
Treaty 8 covers approximately 840,000 square kilometres — an area larger than Saskatchewan — in the boreal forest and is home to 39 First Nations communities in Alberta, B.C., Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories.
The lawsuit alleges the federal and provincial governments approved permits for the megaproject without having “assessed whether Site C would infringe West Moberley’s Treaty rights.”
It argues that the dam, if completed, will permanently deprive First Nations of “the use and enjoyment of lands and waters” in their home territories.
The lawsuit seeks an interim or permanent injunction against further construction on the megaproject while the court decides whether First Nation rights have been violated.
“We are fighting for the land and the preservation of the Dunne-za way of life. But we are also fighting for values all British Columbians share, like transparency and economic prudence,” said Chief Roland Willson in a press release.
The project will flood another 83 kilometres of the Peace River valley, destroy fish habitat, increase mercury levels in fish, flood the lower reaches of several smaller rivers and destroy cultural and spiritual sites.
According to a report from the University of BC’s Program on Water Governance “Site C has more significant negative environmental effects than any other project ever reviewed under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.”
Many First Nation leaders condemned the recent decision by Premier John Horgan to complete the dam as an affront to promises of reconciliation with First Nations.
The premier angered First Nations by saying that he was not bound to uphold his commitments to reconciliation in the case of Site C because former premier Christy Clark started the project.
“It’s my view that activities that began before I was sworn in as premier are out of my control,” Horgan said in an interview with the Globe and Mail. “In the case of Site C, I really have to say it is 25-per-cent done. It’s not like I’m going to [start] it — I’m going to finish it.”
Meanwhile the Site C dam has implications for other Treaty 8 nations especially those living downstream near Wood Buffalo National Park, a world heritage site threatened by dams and oilsands projects.
Last year the UNESCO World Heritage Committee asked the Canadian government to study threats to the park.
The committee asked the government to conduct an “environmental and social impact assessment of the Site C project,” which threatens to alter the flow of water through the Peace-Athabasca Delta in the heart of the 45,000-square-kilometre park in northeast Alberta.
A 2014 federal environmental assessment of Site C didn’t examine impacts on the delta because BC Hydro said there would be “no detectable” effects.
The federal panel restated BC Hydro’s position “without providing a conceivable technical rationale for this conclusion,” said the UNESCO report.
“The time is now to finally give this project the scrutiny it deserves and to establish a basis for informed and balanced decision-making still currently lacking,” it said.
“It is undisputable that industrial development along the Peace and Athabasca River corridors has massively and steadily increased over several decades,” the report noted. “Rather than being matched by adequate governance and management responses, the recent years have unfortunately coincided with a well-documented weakening of Canada’s environmental regulatory framework, and a weakening of Parks Canada Agency in terms of conservation focus and scientific capacity.”