Almost six months after the B.C. government approved construction of the Site C dam, BC Hydro is still waiting for the province to issue the dozens of permits needed before shovels can touch the ground.
The permits have been held up because the province needs to conduct "meaningful consultation" with the Treaty 8 Tribal Association on the hydroelectric project.
But there are limits to consultation, particularly when the government is wedded to delivering this massive undertaking on time and on budget. Consultations were scheduled to be wrapped up by the end of May so the province can get those permits out the door.
The First Nations of Treaty 8 oppose the dam's construction. After a year of negotiations, a group of three of the First Nations received a "capacity funding" cheque from the province for $350,000 in mid-May. They are using the money to pay for an independent technical review of the permit applications. Effectively, the government has bankrolled the review, but it doesn't want to wait for the findings.
Other members of Treaty 8 still haven't agreed to a framework for consultation around the permits.
Last week, Premier Christy Clark signalled that she has no tolerance for delays.
"BC Hydro has done a decade of work in making sure that all of the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed and that we have done everything we can to accommodate folks," she told reporters. "The timeline stands."
The timeline for construction of the $8.8-billion project begins this summer.
BC Hydro intends to clear 735 hectares of trees and vegetation.
The timing is calibrated to take advantage of a narrow seasonal window to divert the Peace River, and early delays can throw the whole project off track. Once the banks are cleared, Hydro needs to construct temporary cofferdams on both sides of the river, work that can only take place between August and September.
That sense of urgency is not shared by the Treaty 8 communities – they are in court seeking to stop the project.
Chief Roland Willson of the West Moberly First Nations says his community's permit review will take at least three months, perhaps a year. There are thousands of pages of documents, he noted. "One report we just received from [the Department of Fisheries and Oceans] is 397 pages."
Marvin Yahey, the chief of the Blueberry River First Nation, said his community and members of the neighbouring Doig River First Nation are not even ready to start looking at the permits. "We still do not have a consultation process," he said. "We still have not had a full technical briefing from the government on the first group of permits they plan to issue."
Meaningful consultation by the province with First Nations on resource development is a legal requirement, but there is so little prospect at this point of obtaining aboriginal consent on Site C that the talks appear to have devolved into a perfunctory exercise. The province and its Crown corporation are dotting i's and crossing t's so that they can show the courts they did their best.
The Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations is co-ordinating the permitting process across government. Officials say consultations were set to wrap up last week – there are 45 provincial permits that have to be processed before Hydro can begin the first phase of dam construction.
Steve Thomson, the Forests Minister who is responsible for the permits, insists that the decisions are in the hands of an impartial bureaucracy. But in the same breath, he allows that there is a strong expectation that his government will be able to hand over all the permits in time for Hydro's construction plans. "We're confident that construction will start this summer."
The Site C dam will result in significant and irreversible adverse impacts on the people in the Treaty 8 communities. A decade of planning by BC Hydro has not changed that. Chief Willson says the consultation process must continue, but even he sees little chance that talking will achieve an agreement.
"They started with the end already decided," he said. "The fix is in on the project."