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British Columbia First Nations chief tracks down cabinet ministers to protest Site C dam

A model of the proposed Site C dam on the Peace River is seen at the Community Consultation Office in Fort St. John on Jan. 16, 2013. Roland Willson, chief of the West Moberly First Nations, asked the federal government to hit pause on BC Hydro’s $9-billion hydro project to allow time for a review of the assessment process and to look for alternative energy sourc

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's new cabinet ministers needed any reminder of how difficult their jobs are going to be when it comes to rebuilding trust with First Nations, they got it last week.

Working the crowd, when the Liberal caucus gathered for its annual Christmas party, was Chief Roland Willson, a big man with a powerful voice and an intractable problem he wasn't going to let anyone ignore.

Mr. Willson, chief of the West Moberly First Nations, went to Ottawa hoping for sit-down meetings with several ministers. When he couldn't get them, he walked into the Christmas party with briefing papers and a short, hard pitch about why the Site C dam has to be stopped.

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"Oh, I tracked them down. I presented them with our documentation," said Mr. Willson.

"I got in front of [Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn] Bennett. She's been given the mandate to meet First Nations," he said. "I got in front of Minister [Hunter] Tootoo, the Minister of Fisheries. A couple of the big permits that have to be issued to BC Hydro come out of his ministry … and I got in front of Justice Minister [Jody] Wilson-Raybould … She told us they would look at this. They are supposed to review all their legal issues and this is one of the biggest."

Mr. Willson also met James Carr, the Minister of Natural Resources, who invited him to his office.

"The mere fact we got to sit down with Minister Carr was a big deal with everything that's going on in Ottawa," he said. "We had an hour-long meeting. That's an hour longer than we ever got with the Harper government on this issue."

Mr. Willson asked the federal government to hit pause on BC Hydro's $9-billion Site C hydro project on the Peace River, to allow time for a review of the assessment process and to look for alternative energy sources. With site preparation work already under way on the river, it might seem his trip to Ottawa came too late.

But he's hoping Mr. Trudeau meant it when he wrote in his mandate letters to ministers: "No relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous Peoples."

The Prime Minister has underscored the importance of that by launching an inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women, and by declaring his government will implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The UN declaration requires states to consult with indigenous people "in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources."

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Mr. Willson's message is that his people have not consented to Site C, which will flood 57,000 acres, drowning traditional hunting, fishing and trapping areas, and an unknown number of graves and sacred sites.

"If they are talking about setting the course right [with First Nations] – they need to start with this project," Mr. Willson said.

He wants Ottawa to withhold the numerous federal permits BC Hydro needs, including authorizations to damage fish and migratory bird habitat. And then, during the pause that follows, he wants a review of the Order in Council that approved the environmental certificate.

He feels a review, and adherence to the UN declaration, will halt the dam.

But BC Hydro has already spent $423-million on the project, and the provincial government is pushing to proceed even though there are still legal challenges by First Nations before Federal Court.

Did any of the federal ministers tell Mr. Willson the project was just too far advanced to stop?

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"No. I never got that impression," he said. "They said they'll look at it."

It will need a long, hard look because the federal government is in a difficult position. On the one hand, Mr. Trudeau has promised new respect for the rights of First Nations. On the other, the province has spent a lot of money on the project and it would be politically damaging to stop it.

"They are confronted with almost an almost impossible task," agreed Mr. Willson. "But we have hope."

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