This week, a year almost to the day since the ground-breaking Supreme Court of Canada decision affirming aboriginal title in the Tsilhqot’in case, another B.C. First Nation will be in federal court trying to prevent yet another destructive project that is being aggressively pursued without aboriginal consent.
The $9-billion-plus Site C, the third dam on the Peace River in northeastern B.C., would flood hunting grounds, contaminate the remaining Native fisheries, and obliterate literally hundreds of cultural and spiritual sites. It’s not like the First Nations have anywhere else to go. A study commissioned by the West Moberly First Nations earlier this year showed highly toxic levels of mercury in trout caught in the Williston drainage. Some rivers have high levels of selenium from coal mines. In a region scarred by two large dams and criss-crossed with oil and gas installations, Treaty 8 First Nations are rapidly running out of places to meaningfully exercise their rights, guaranteed by treaty “as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the rivers flow”.
In her ground-breaking ruling last July, Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin strongly affirmed aboriginal title which is vested in aboriginal communities and includes both present and future generations. This means that land may not be damaged in a way that would prevent enjoyment by future generations. On a scale of damage, flooding a 100-kilometre-long stretch of the Peace River and its tributaries equals pretty much total destruction.
Yet B.C. Hydro, egged on by the provincial government, is itching to put shovels in the ground this summer, thus pre-empting the legal process. After the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, after the Tsilhqot’in decision—have we learned nothing?
In their opposition to Site C, Treaty 8 First Nations are in good company. Local governments across the province are concerned about the threat to B.C.’s food security and the economics of the $9.5-billion project. Earlier this month, Metro Vancouver called on the B.C. government to put a two-year moratorium on Site C pending review by two independent watchdogs, the B.C. Utilities Commission and the Agricultural Land Commission. Metro Vancouver joins a number of other municipalities and regional districts across the province, representing a total of 70 percent of B.C.’s non-Native population.
Meanwhile, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee has initiated a monitoring mission to investigate threats posed by Site C to the wetlands of the Wood Buffalo National Park, and asked Canada to put on hold any resource projects that would cause irreversible impacts to this world heritage site. The decision was made in response to a petition from the Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations to place Wood Buffalo National Park on the list of world heritage sites “in danger”.
When the B.C. government approved Site C last December, it did so despite the findings of the Joint Review Panel that Site C would cause irreversible negative impacts to First Nations. It also flouted the panel’s recommendation that Site C be reviewed by an independent body, thus laying itself open to legal challenges by both First Nations and non-Native landowners.
As the shock waves of the Dawson Creek fatality reverberate across the province, we are poignantly reminded that respect for the law is at the heart of our democracy; it is the foundation of the peace and safety we enjoy. The principles of aboriginal title and the duty of the Crown have been affirmed in the strongest terms by the highest court of the land. The least that the B.C. and federal governments can do is show respect, and wait until the courts have made their ruling on Site C.