Just two months after federal government officials got a standing ovation at the United Nations for embracing a declaration on indigenous rights, the Liberals are facing criticism for issuing authorizations for Site C – a massive dam in northeast B.C. that some First Nations say will harm their way of life.
"It's an absolute betrayal," said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.
"This is outrageous," said Vicky Husband, a leading environmentalist in B.C. "They said that they would stand up for First Nations rights and they just sold them down the river. They can't be trusted." Caitlin Workman, a spokesperson for the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, defended the government's action, saying it is striving for a balanced approach.
"The environment and the economy go hand in hand," she said in an e-mail. "Our government is ensuring the environmental risks associated with resource-development projects are addressed by industry before a project can proceed. Our government is also committed to a renewed nation-to-nation relationship with indigenous peoples based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation and partnership."
The $9-billion project won provincial and federal approvals in 2014 after undergoing a joint environmental review, and BC Hydro has been forging ahead with preparatory work at the site on Peace River near Fort St. John. But construction of the dam was awaiting the issuance of key federal approvals that allow BC Hydro to block the river and flood the valley. Opponents of the project had been hoping Ottawa would withhold that authorization long enough to allow Federal Court to hear an appeal by the West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations, who argue the dam violates their treaty rights. That case is scheduled for September.
Hope of delay evaporated, however, when officials with Fisheries and Oceans Canada called Ken Boon of the Peace Valley Landowners, to tell him a 14-page Fisheries Act Authorization had been issued.
"I still can't hardly believe it," said Mr. Boon whose group has been fighting to stop the project.
The government confirmed the approval, stating in an e-mail:
"Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has issued an authorization under the Fisheries Act for the construction of the main civil works, which includes the dam, generating station, spillway and associated works and operations … DFO will continue to engage with Indigenous groups that have raised concerns about the project to ensure that their concerns continue to be heard and taken into account."
"I am deeply disappointed," Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party of Canada, said in a statement. "I really believed this new government would honour its word to First Nations."
Craig Benjamin, Campaigner for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples with Amnesty International Canada, said the fight over Site C is now going to get a lot bigger.
"We have been campaigning in Canada, trying to draw this issue to the attention of MPs, to make the federal government realize this is a test case for the promises that they have made [First Nations]. Our next step is to … engage Amnesty globally," he said.
Mr. Benjamin said he was surprised DFO issued the permits, since Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett went to New York in March to adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which gives indigenous people the right to "free, prior and informed consent" over development on their traditional lands. The former Conservative government had refused to adopt that declaration saying it would give First Nations a de facto veto on major resource projects.
Mr. Benjamin said it is hard to square adoption of the declaration with approvals of a massive dam that is opposed by First Nations.
Ms. Bennett is away on holidays and was not available for comment.
Chief Roland Willson of the West Moberly First Nation said by issuing the Site C authorizations the government has shown its commitment to UNDRIP is hollow.
"This whole process has been a sham," he said. "They can say they will honour [UNDRIP] but that's just empty words."
Caleb Behn, a Dene lawyer and executive director of Keepers Of The Water said the project poses health threats because it will release mercury into the environment, which indigenous people will be exposed to because of their traditional diets of fish and game.
"The federal government's decision is an affront to First Nations and to the scientific work that proves Site C is the most destructive project ever reviewed in Canadian history," said Sierra Club BC's Peace Valley campaigner Ana Simeon. "Prime Minister Trudeau has said honouring First Nations rights is a 'sacred obligation' not an inconvenience. But this decision is a profanity that clearly views those rights as nothing more than an inconvenience to be swept aside."