Op-ed commentary by David Schindler and Faisal Moola, published in the Vancouver Sun (Postmedia daily), Dec 20, 2017 (with related readings further below)
The controversial, $10.7-billion Site C dam in northern British Columbia is Canada’s first mega-project in the new era of reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. Regulatory reviews, public consultations and the subsequent decision by B.C. Premier John Horgan to proceed with dam construction have occurred at a time when Canadians have finally begun to come to terms with our long painful history of colonization of Indigenous Peoples and their lands and territories.
Following the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action [final report issued in 2015, Wikipedia] and recent commitments by the B.C. and federal governments to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples , no politician in this country can claim to be ignorant of the harmful ecological and social consequences of making development decisions without the free, prior and informed consent of affected communities, or our obligations to ensure that Indigenous Peoples are no longer treated as an afterthought.
Specifically, the B.C. government’s justification to proceed with Site C [see report below] on the grounds that it will provide “clean” hydroelectricity ignores the scientific and moral case that we shouldn’t wreck the environment and ignore Indigenous Peoples and their human rights in the fight against climate change. The Paris Climate Agreement, of which Canada is a signatory, clearly states that actions to address climate change must be consistent with government “obligations on human rights”, including “the rights of Indigenous Peoples”. Local First Nations, whose ancestral lands will be flooded if Site C is completed and operating, have entrenched constitutional rights to hunt, trap and fish under Treaty 8 — a Peace and Friendship Treaty signed in 1899. These rights will be effectively meaningless if the Site C dam is completed. Vast areas of traditional territories will be underwater and First Nations will no longer be able to live off healthy populations of wild game, fish and plants as they did for thousands of years before they signed Treaty 8.
Furthermore, claims that large hydro dams, like Site C, are an important source of “clean-energy” going forward are outdated. In fact, several decades of scientific studies of reservoirs show that at best, large dams release greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) equivalent to generating the same electricity using natural gas. At worst, they generate as much GHG as burning coal. This is because flooding forests and other natural areas that take up greenhouse gases changes them to decaying masses of plant material on the reservoir bottom, releasing both carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. In addition, the concrete and steel that must be manufactured and the energy required for transportation and construction of dams and transmission infrastructure add GHG.
Alarmingly, Canada’s recent mid-century, long-term, low-greenhouse-gas development strategy to fight climate change relies almost entirely on numerous large-scale hydroelectric developments — the equivalent of building and operating roughly 40 Site C dams. This amount of development would cause huge environmental damage on several large free-flowing rivers in Canada, resulting in destruction of critical fish habitat, shrinkage of river deltas caused by regulated flooding and sediment releases, flooded forests and agricultural lands, and other detrimental ecological effects. A mix of energy conservation initiatives and truly clean energy like geothermal, wind and solar would meet our needs and create more jobs without such massive environmental damage.
Worst of all, such reliance on large-scale hydro like Site C would jeopardize the well-being of Indigenous Peoples in northern Canada. Almost all the sites where enough power could be generated from large-scale hydro dams are in the North, where Canada has guaranteed Indigenous Peoples’ subsistence would be protected through numbered treaties of the early 20th century, such as Treaty 8. Numerous Canadian scientific studies show that mercury contamination of fish always follows dam construction. Mercury sequestered in soils and vegetation is released on flooding and converted to toxic methyl mercury, which accumulates in food chains and can’t be safely consumed. Resource bases for hunting and trapping are also destroyed by flooding traditional land-use areas, and flow regulation impedes traditional navigation on rivers. Roads and power lines allow outsiders access to once remote areas to compete with Indigenous Peoples for the remaining resources, like moose and other wild game.
If completed, Site C would contribute to deterioration of the environment and traditional lifestyles of Indigenous Peoples up to several hundred kilometres downstream. Two respected international agencies that have reviewed the downstream impacts of the Site C dam, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the International Union of Conservation Networks, have released hard-hitting reports on Site C — even going as far as to propose that Wood Buffalo National Park, which is downstream of Site C, be declared a World Heritage Site in Jeopardy. Their conclusions are an international rebuke of provincial and federal claims that the ecological and social consequences of the Site C dam on Indigenous Peoples are justified.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated, “It is time for a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations peoples. One that understands that the constitutionally guaranteed rights of First Nations in Canada are not an inconvenience but rather a sacred obligation.”
It is time for Canada’s federal and provincial governments to stop ignoring scientific evidence, and to cease making claims about improving relationships with Indigenous Peoples while running roughshod over their human rights under the pretence of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
David Schindler is the Killam Memorial Professor of ecology emeritus, University of Alberta; Faisal Moola is an associate professor of conservation leadership and policy in the Department of Geography at the University of Guelph.
* NDP government’s Site C math a flunk, say project financing experts, by Sarah Cox, DeSmog Canada, Dec 22, 2017
* NDP gov’t in British Columbia bows to fossil fuel and natural resource plunderers, gives green light to ‘Site C’ hydro-electric dam, by Roger Annis, A Socialist In Canada, Dec 13, 2017
* While official Canada celebrates 150 years, First Nations lament 150 years of colonialism and cultural genocide, by Roger Annis, A Socialist In Canada, July 3, 2017
‘Site C was conceived to power continued industrial development’
By Roger Annis, posted as a comment to this article appearing on Rabble.ca: No insight from B.C. NDP as they approve Site C Dam, by Salman Zafar, Dec 20, 2017
Nice article, but it misses the main point–Site C was conceived to power continued industrial development in northern BC, including the madcap LNG scheming. Yes, the revenue projections by dam proponents are wonky, but that’s because the projected markets for the electricity are wonky. Will LNG remain a pipe dream? Will American industry or cities need or want the power? Will Alberta want the power? Dam supporters know the risks they are taking and they do not care, neither for public finances nor for the future of the Earth and the species who live on it.
The “$4 billion” cost figure for Site C is wrong. Two billion dollars have been spent to date; another two billion is the estimated cost of closing and remediating the site. That estimate is inflated by ‘too big to close’ dam proponents.
The article should have mentioned the construction unions. They support this and other anti-environment projects because they bring dues dollars into their coffers.
Christy Clark said if Site C’s unreliable electricity sales projections do not work out, the electricity can be peddled to ‘greenwash’ Alberta’s tar sands. So much for hydroelectricity as a ‘green’ or ‘renewable’ energy source. It is continued industrial and consumerist expansion requiring more and more natural resource plundering that is killing the Earth. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether this is powered by fossil fuels or by renewables. What the planet and the humans inhabiting it require is a powering down of all the waste and excess of capitalist/consumerist society, as fast as can possibly be done. Anything less takes human society to a very dangerous place, already made extremely dangerous by rising militarism and war.