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The area of the Peace River where the proposed Site C hydroeletric dam would be built near Fort St. John, B.CDeborah Bai/The Globe and Mail

First Nations leaders say a broad coalition is building that, with greater public support, could stop the $9-billion Site C dam from going ahead on the Peace River.

But opponents of the project are running out of time, and according to a BC Hydro poll they have a long way to go to turn the tide of public opinion.

BC Hydro was recently granted all the permits it needs to start construction on the controversial project, which will flood 6,000 hectares of the Peace River Valley, and work, including construction of an $8-million access road, is expected to begin soon. The Crown corporation has been busy in recent weeks holding community open houses and job fairs in northeast British Columbia and is claiming widespread public acceptance, with a company poll earlier this month showing 59 per cent of those surveyed support building Site C and another 22 per cent support it "under certain circumstances," while 17 per cent are opposed.

Despite that, several native leaders and a spokesman for Peace River landowners expressed confidence Thursday that the project will be halted by legal challenges and a public outcry.

"This is a fight that needs to be taken up by all British Columbians. It's not just an indigenous land rights issue," said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. "As far as I'm concerned this project is never, ever going to happen," he said.

"I think there's a growing awareness about how important this fight, this battle, is in the northeast. We're talking about the complete destruction and obliteration of a world-class heritage river … It's absolutely unconscionable. I think British Columbians [and] Canadians are beginning to wake up to that fact."

Grand Chief Phillip likened the Site C fight to past environmental battles in British Columbia during which First Nations helped sway public opinion, forcing the government to change direction.

"I reflect on the battle many years ago to save the Stein River Valley, and Clayoquot Sound battle with respect to pushing back on clear-cut logging, and I believe the battle to save the Peace River is one of those fights that absolutely needs to be won," he said. "There's enormous support for saving the Peace. Support that ripples out across this country, down into the U.S. and internationally . . . It's a legal fight, it's about treaty rights, it's about Constitutional rights, but it's very much in the public interest to save the Peace River."

Chief Roland Willson, of the West Moberly First Nation, said aboriginal communities are opposed to the project because two dams have already flooded most of the valley, and Site C would drown much of what's left.

"This valley is important to us. It's the last piece of river valley that we have in northeastern B.C.," he said. "We're not opposed to the creation of this energy, we're opposed to the destruction of this valley."

Several First Nations and the Peace Valley Landowner Association (PVLA) are challenging the project in court.

Ken Boon, president of the PVLA, said those opposing Site C have been buoyed recently by letters two regional districts have sent to the government, calling for construction to be delayed. Metro Vancouver wants time for the BC Utilities Commission to review the project and the Peace River Regional District wants a delay to allow the courts to rule on the legal challenges.

BC Hydro wasn't able to immediately respond to questions.

B.C. Energy Ministry spokesman Dan Gilmore stated in an e-mail that Site C has been thoroughly reviewed and no delay is warranted.

"Site C has gone through one of the most comprehensive reviews for an infrastructure project in B.C. history," he wrote. "Site C is the right project for B.C. at the right time and it's time to move the project forward."