Site C dam shaping up as a watershed moment in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's political career

    1 of 4 2 of 4

      On August 24, the Site C dam was highlighted as the lead story on CBC Radio's influential national morning show, The Current.

      On the air, Dene lawyer and activist Caleb Behn eviscerated the $8.8-billion megaproject, saying it would flood of a huge amount First Nations' traditional territories.

      Behn pointed out on the radio program that federal officials politely listened earlier this year when West Moberly First Nations chief Roland Wilson outlined his objections. But then the Liberal government still went ahead and issued permits a week later to allow the project to proceed. 

      This occurred even though indigenous people have had to live with the consequences of two other dams being approved in the past on the Peace River, as well as massive amounts of natural-gas extraction taking place on their traditional lands.

      Behn noted a parallel between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's support of the Site C dam and a decision by Trudeau's father and Jean Chretien to issue a white paper in 1969. It called for assimilation of First Nations into mainstream society by eliminating Indian status and transferring reserve lands into private property that could be sold.

      Trudeau senior later changed his position, eventually acknowledging indigenous constitutional rights in section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. Behn noted that there is an opportunity for Justin Trudeau to reverse his position on Site C and win the respect of aboriginal people.

      The Peace Valley Environmental Association says the Site C dam would have an impact on more than 12,700 hectares of agricultural land.

      In addition, Behn repeated what's been said by Harry Swain, chair of the joint review panel that evaluated the project: Site C power isn't needed.

      Swain, a former senior federal bureaucrat, has pointed out that B.C.'s electricity consumption has remained flat since 2005. That's why he thinks the dam is an expensive mistake. 

      Earlier this year, Royal Society of Canada president Maryse Lassonde wrote to Trudeau asking why the project didn't undergo an independent review through the B.C. Utilities Commission. This came around the same time as more than 250 scientists and legal scholars signed a public letter questioning why the dam didn't go through the normal regulatory process. 

      Amnesty International has launched an international campaign on behalf of indigenous people against the dam. It's generating coverage in other countries as a human-rights issue. This included an article in the prestigious U.K.-based Guardian

      Meanwhile, federal New Democrats are already zeroing in on the Liberal government's shortcomings in dealing with indigenous issues. Two of the party's most effective MPs, Nathan Cullen and Charlie Angus, are leading the charge.

      As this campaign against the Site C dam gathers momentum, Trudeau is increasingly looking like a hypocrite with his promise to forge a new relationship with indigenous people. And his justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, herself a former regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, risks being caricatured as a quisling. This will be especially so if her department leads legal responses against indigenous people and human-rights groups that oppose the dam.

      Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau could pay a high political price in 2019 for their support for the Site C dam.

      Trudeau could probably ride this out if there was a stronger case for the dam. But so far, all B.C. Hydro can offer up is that solar power and wind power are not reliable, so British Columbians might freeze in the dark at some point if this "firm" power from the Site C dam doesn't come onstream.

      This overlooks how the integration of North American electricity grids, feed-in tariffs, and demand-response pricing would deal with all of this. (For more on this, read Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes's comments here.) Premier Christy Clark and B.C. Hydro could be leaders in advancing these arguments, but so far, they've refused to do this. 

      But they can't deny that a renewable-energy revolution is taking place around the world with solar, wind, and geothermal (not to mention the potential of tidal power). If the Site C dam was subject to an independent review by the B.C. Utilities Commission, an honest regulator would likely conclude there are less expensive ways to generate clean power in the future without flooding a river valley.

      "The problem with Site C is the Liberals went ahead and said they wanted to build it," BC. NDP MLA George Heyman told the Straight in 2014. "They subjected it to environmental review by a joint review panel, but they [panellists] were expressly precluded from comparing it to other sources of power, like small-scale wind and solar, or geothermal, which is not so small-scale."

      The B.C. NDP's criticism of the Site C dam has grown more intense since then, with party leader John Horgan emphasizing that the electricity isn't needed now.

      NDP MP Nathan Cullen and B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan have been scoring political points over the federal and provincial Liberals' handling of the Site C dam.
      Stephen Hui

      Trudeau is backing the Site C dam because it's being promoted by his political ally, Premier Clark. They're not allowing an objective review, even though Trudeau was elected on a pledge to make evidence-based decisions rooted in science.

      In this regard, the prime minister has made a rookie error, just as his father made a rookie mistake with his 1969 white paper. There's still time for Trudeau to change course and avoid international headaches that will continue for years to come. His support for the Site C dam will undermine his legitimacy on the world stage and likely ensures he won't have a second majority government.

      Despite this, expect Trudeau to remain steadfast in supporting the B.C. Liberals on this megaproject at least until next May. But if the New Democrats win the B.C. provincial election in 2017, that's when the prime minister is most likely to buckle. As the Liberals head toward the 2019 federal election, Trudeau can't afford to be seen to be on the wrong side of history, particularly with Nathan Cullen and Charlie Angus nipping at his credibility.