Premier John Horgan said he is not bound to uphold his commitments to reconciliation with British Columbia's First Nations in the case of the Site C dam, saying the $10.7-billion dam his cabinet has decided to complete is not really his project.
"It's my view that activities that began before I was sworn in as Premier are out of my control," Mr. Horgan said in an interview on Tuesday. "In the case of Site C, I really have to say it is 25-per-cent done. It's not like I'm going to [start] it – I'm going to finish it."
The hydroelectric project on B.C.'s Peace River faces multiple court challenges from Indigenous communities that argue the completion of the dam – which will result in the flooding and destruction of 5,550 hectares of land within the traditional territory of Treaty 8 First Nations – will infringe on their aboriginal rights.
Six aboriginal bands have signed benefit agreements with BC Hydro around the project. However, Mr. Horgan said some of those bands are also displeased that Site C is going ahead: "They are not happy," he said.
Mr. Horgan promised during the provincial election last spring to review the project, which began under the former Liberal government, and on Monday, he announced his NDP government intends to complete Site C.
First Nations leaders have widely condemned the decision, saying Mr. Horgan's repeated statements about his intent to seek reconciliation with Indigenous peoples rings hollow.
When he formed his cabinet in July, Mr. Horgan instructed all of his cabinet ministers to implement in their actions the stipulations of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which calls upon governments to seek free, prior and informed consent for development of a First Nations community's ancestral lands. As well, he has embraced the "calls to action" recommendations from Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and has promised to uphold the landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling in the 2014 Tsilhqot'in decision, in which the court ruled that Indigenous Canadians still own their ancestral lands unless they signed away their ownership in treaties.
In a year-end interview, the Premier said he still hopes to reach some kind of accommodation with those First Nations communities that will suffer losses as a result of the completion of the dam. He reached out to the top political leaders representing First Nations in the province on Monday to explain his decision on the dam – an effort that did not prevent an angry backlash.
Leaders of the First Nations Summit attacked the decision, saying the NDP government's decision to finish the dam stands "in direct conflict" with Mr. Horgan's commitments to reconciliation and they are demanding a meeting with the Premier to discuss the impact it will have on their relationships with the province.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, said his phone call with Mr. Horgan on Monday did not go well. "I hung up on him," he said in an interview, adding that the Premier has "pretty much poisoned the well" for reconciliation between the province and Indigenous communities.
Mr. Horgan said there are still many other ways to work toward reconciliation.
"There has been a century and a half of disregard for Indigenous communities and we are going to do our level best to redress that as we move forward," he said. He noted his government is working with First Nations to fight the Kinder Morgan oil pipeline and to resolve conflicts over open-net fish farms.
However, Mr. Horgan noted that the provincial government is legally bound to fight First Nations in court in those cases where the province is already being sued over the construction of Site C. "There are already court actions and I have to defend the Crown, that's my responsibility as Premier of B.C."
He said until that is resolved, it will be difficult to conclude any settlement of restitution, although he said consultation will continue.
At least three First Nations are either already in court or have signalled their intent to pursue a lawsuit.