A First Nations chief from northeastern B.C. has said his band is considering legal action after Premier Gordon Campbell gave the nod for the controversial Site C dam proposal to proceed to the regulatory-review stage.
Chief Roland Willson told the Georgia Straight by phone that the West Moberly First Nations are contemplating court action because his people weren’t given an opportunity to present their arguments during the project definition and consultation stage.
“It’s usually the last thing we want to do, but these people [the B.C. Liberal government] aren’t getting it done,” Willson said. “That’s what it usually takes in order to get them to do anything.”
On April 19, Campbell and Energy Minister Blair Lekstrom announced that the regulatory-review stage will take two years and involve provincial and federal environmental assessments. In total, there are five planning and development stages for Site C, which would be the third dam built on the Peace River, after the W.A.C. Bennett and Peace Canyon dams.
Along with all the other chiefs whose First Nations are covered by Treaty 8, Willson boycotted the premier’s media event, which took place at the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, near the town of Hudson’s Hope. Willson pointed out that the Campbell government watered down the provincial environmental assessment process after being elected in 2001. He said the West Moberly First Nations, which are still reeling from the effects of the first two dams, would be directly affected by the Site C dam, due to its proximity.
“We never talked about anything in that whole process,” Willson said of the project definition and consultation stage. “Then, when we heard rumours that they might be making the decision after the Olympics, we called Blair Lekstrom into the office and we said, ”˜You can’t do this. You have to finish Stage 2 with us, we have to get all of our stuff done, and you have to take a look at it before you can make that decision.’ ”
Willson added, “We had to fight to get in front of Blair Lekstrom, so he could hear our side of the story.”
Energy ministry spokespeople Jake Jacobs and Liz Bicknell refused to make Lekstrom available for an interview with the Straight.
Victoria-based lawyer Christopher Devlin has previously acted as legal counsel to Treaty 8 First Nations. He told the Straight that two Supreme Court of Canada decisions—involving the Haida and the Mikisew Cree—lay out what’s required of government and B.C. Hydro in the case of Site C.
“They have to properly consult and meaningfully accommodate the treaty rights of the First Nations in the area,” Devlin said by phone. “That’s the moving target—what will be enough? What will be sufficient? Are the impacts so grievous that the only appropriate response is to not put a dam there? Or are there responses that can be made that will mitigate those impacts?”
The Stage 2 consultations “never really gave the Treaty 8 First Nations an idea of what the impacts on their treaty rights are going to be”, or how their treaty rights are going to be accommodated, according to Devlin. “So, there are just so many questions that are left unanswered by the process to date,” he said.
The 1997 Supreme Court of Canada ruling in the Delgamuukw case affirmed and defined aboriginal title. However, Devlin said the Treaty 8 First Nations are not technically covered by Delgamuukw.
“The chiefs take the position that they didn’t give up their aboriginal title, and that Treaty 8 is a peace-and-friendship treaty and not a cede-and-surrender treaty,” Devlin said. “However, the government of Canada and British Columbia take the position that Treaty 8 is a cede-and-surrender treaty. Making the pitch for aboriginal title is very difficult.”
Willson said he will fight “until the end” to stop the dam from being built.
“When we start understanding the global ramifications of losing all that farmland and all the resources that will be gone from that, it will be too late,” he said.