First Nations Treaty Rights vs BC & Canadian Governments on the Proposed Site C Dam
Originally published on the ECOreport
Though construction on British Columbia’s W.A.C. Bennet dam began 54 years ago, fish are still so contaminated with mercury they are unfit for human consumption. Chief Roland Willson, of West Moberly First Nation, said BC started issuing health advisories after the dam was built. On May 11, 2015, he brought 200 pounds of contaminated bull trout to the legislature lawn for a press conference calling on the BC government to reverse its decision to approve the controversial $9 billion Site C dam. Willson said poisoning fish is a violation of Treaty #8.
”One of the treaty promises talks about no forced interference (with First Nations fishing) and having mercury in the fish is pretty forced,” he said.
Chiefs Willson said Premier Christy Clark “can have her mercury-laden fish back. Let her figure out what to do with them, because we can’t.”
This is the latest skirmish in the First Nations fight to defend their rights, granted under Treaty #8, from the Provincial and Federal Governments.
Willson said, “Fish aren’t the only issue (with the proposed Site C Dam), there’s wildlife concerns and they are destroying enough farmland to feed over a million people. With everything that’s going on in California, we’re going to be in serious need of land that we can grow food on….”
If the Site C Dam is built, it will submerge approximately 9,310 hectares of land and up to 337 recognized archaeological sites.
The report of the Joint Review Panel on the Site C Dam lists negative impacts on First Nations’ treaty rights, such as:
- (page 237) “BC Hydro recognized that some Aboriginal groups have indicated the Peace River holds spiritual and cultural value to them and that specific places that Aboriginal groups’ value and use for multiple purposes would be permanently changed or lost by the construction of the Project. BC Hydro recognizes that this effect cannot be mitigated and significant for Doig River First Nation, Halfway River First Nation, Prophet River First Nation, West Moberly First Nations, Blueberry River First Nations, Saulteau First Nations, and the McLeod Lake Indian Band. The Panel agrees.”
- (pages 314/315) ” … the Project would likely cause a significant adverse effect on fishing opportunities and practices for the First Nations represented by Treaty 8 Tribal Association, Saulteau First Nations, and Blueberry River First Nations, and that these effects cannot be mitigated.”
- (page 315) “… the Project would likely cause a significant adverse effect on hunting and non-tenured trapping for the First Nations represented by Treaty 8 Tribal Association and Saulteau First Nations, and that these effects cannot be mitigated.”
The province has been trying to negotiate agreements with First Nations, but none have signed any agreements.
“We are all opposed to it. There are (only) 4 First Nations that are in court, because it costs lots of money. We are taking on BC and BC Hydro, the two wealthiest opponents in the province. They have lawyers crawling out of the woodwork and we are a small group of First Nations trying to protect our treaty rights,” said Willson.
The Doig River First Nation, Prophet River First Nation, West Moberly First Nations, and McLeod Lake Indian Band filed challenges against the BC and Canadian government approvals of the Site C project.
Willson says the federal and provincial governments were required to consider treaty rights in their decision-making process, but failed to do so.
Thus their approval of the project “is an unjustified impact” which they did not have the authority to make.
A decision on the judicial review hearing for the BC environmental certificate is expected around the end of this month, or beginning of June.
The federal government is attempting to have an infringement motion dismissed because the dam has not yet been built. First Nations argue that if you wait for the dam to be built, there is no remedy. They want to stop the infringement before it happens.
Willson described the proposed Site C Dam as a “$12 billion stupid mistake.” It was originally estimated to cost $7 billion. That figure is now $9 billion, and BC projects usually have at least a 40% cost overrun.
“We are not saying ‘not in my backyard,’ we are not a Nimby group. What we are saying is we don’t have to destroy this valley in order to create energy. There are better ways of doing it,” he said.
What about creating jobs?
“That’s fine, let’s create jobs, but let’s make good jobs that we can be proud of. Let’s do a geothermal plant. Let’s do a gas fire plant. They are 100% reclaimable, you can take the whole site down if you need to. You can’t do that with a reservoir. Once they flood it, the land is gone forever,” said Willson.
He believes mercury contamination problems, such as occurred at the W.A.C. Bennet dam, will reoccur if Site C Dam is built.
“It is exactly the same environment and what would happen is that it would pass through one dam to the next dam. The fish that come through the turbine get all chewed up and the fish downstream eat those fish,” said Willson.
He added, “We haven’t done tests on the Peace River below the dams yet. That takes more money.”
The current study was on 57 bull trout caught around 60 kilometers upstream from the Williston Reservoir, on the Crooked River. Chief Willson described the results as “shocking” — 98% of the fish samples “had tissue mercury concentrations that exceeded the guideline of 0.1 mg/kg wet weight (ww), based on the consumption of approximately 1 kg of fish per week.”
“We don’t have salmon in northeastern BC, so the bull trout are our equivalent to the salmon for the coastal First Nations. They have high fat content and they get big, so one fish can feed your whole family,” said Chief Willson.
Photo Credits: Press Conference by Torrance Coste, Wilderness Committee; two close-ups of Chief Willson by Ana Simeon, BC Sierra club; Press Conference by Torrance Coste, Wilderness Committee; Chief Roland Willson