A group of First Nations has filed a lawsuit over a massive hydroelectric dam proposed in northeastern British Columbia, arguing the project would have a devastating impact on their traditional land.
The Doig River, Prophet River, West Moberly and McLeod Lake bands, which are members of the Treaty 8 Tribal Association, want a Federal Court judge to quash Ottawa's approval of the Site-C dam and prevent work from starting.
The $7.9-billion dam would be the third located on the Peace River and would flood 5,550 hectares of land. It would generate enough power for 450,000 homes.
The provincial and federal environment ministers each issued environmental certificates last month, concluding the adverse effects would be outweighed by the benefits of the dam.
But the bands' application for judicial review, which names several federal ministers and BC Hydro, alleges Ottawa failed to adequately consider the potential impact on First Nations and, because of that, violated their treaty rights.
"The information before the governor in council could not support a funding of justification" for the environmental certificate, says the notice of application.
"The governor in council did not give sufficient or any regard to the adverse impacts of the project on the applicants' rights pursuant to Treaty No. 8."
A report by a joint federal-provincial environmental assessment panel reviewed the proposal and released a report in May, but it did not make a clear recommendation either for or against the dam.
The panel's report said the dam would cause significant, adverse effects on the environment, wildlife, aboriginals and farmers, and it also said BC Hydro had not demonstrated the need for the dam on the timetable it set out.
But the panel also concluded there would be clear benefits to the proposed dam.
The four bands behind the lawsuit said in a news release that the dam would destroy a valley that is home to important fishing and hunting grounds, as well as areas of cultural and spiritual significance.
"No amount of money could compensate us for the lass of this valley," Chief Norman Davis of the Doig River First Nation said in the release.
"We cannot support the destruction of the Peace River Valley."
The B.C. government has not yet said whether it intends to build the dam. Provincial cabinet is expected to announce its decision before Christmas.
David Conroy of BC Hydro said the Crown corporation is reviewing the court application and couldn't comment on specifics, though he said last month's environmental approvals followed years of consultations with aboriginal groups. He said such applications for judicial review aren't uncommon.
"We have held literally hundreds and hundreds of consultation meetings," Conroy said in an interview Wednesday.
"We feel, and the joint review panel confirmed this, that the consultation has been meaningful and the potentially affected aboriginal groups will understand the impacts of the proposed projects."
Conroy said BC Hydro has been negotiating with First Nations that would be significantly affected by the Site C project and providing offers to mitigate the potential impact. He declined to comment on the status of such negotiations with the four bands behind the lawsuit.
Officials with the federal departments of Environment, Justice, and Fisheries and Oceans could not be immediately reached for comment.
The bands' lawsuit is the latest legal challenge aimed at stopping the dam.
The Peace Valley Landowners Association recently filed applications for judicial review in B.C. Supreme Court and in Federal Court.
The association is also asking for the environmental certificates to be quashed and for the court to block any work on the project.