A United Nations panel on racism is calling on the B.C. government to immediately halt construction on the $8.8-billion Site C dam, arguing the province needs to review the controversial project in consultation with the First Nations communities facing irreversible destruction of their lands.
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which monitors how signatories such as Canada comply with the UN's anti-discrimination treaty, issued a new report on Monday holding the project in northeastern B.C. up as an example of an outdated approach to resource development that fails to secure the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples.
The panel also called on British Columbia to "end the substitution of costly legal challenges as post facto recourse" instead of getting the consent from First Nations as well as overhaul the way it decides to approve these big resource projects to achieve buy-in from local Indigenous groups.
The NDP government has pledged to continue construction of Site C while the independent British Columbia Utilities Commission (BCUC) decides whether it makes more economic sense to go ahead with the hydroelectric project, mothball it until further notice or scrap it in favour of alternative power sources. The BCUC will issue its final report on the business case for the dam on the Peace River by Nov. 1. Meanwhile, roughly 2,200 people will continue working at the site in northeastern B.C.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, which was one of about 20 Indigenous groups that submitted evidence to the UN panel, said Monday's report from the global body reinforces how the province must continue shifting the paradigm of how such projects should proceed.
"Indigenous land rights and human rights are a constitutional and legal reality," he said on Monday. "Governments need to wake up and smell the coffee in regard to that reality."
He said the former Liberal government decided Christy Clark's signature megaproject did not need to go through the BCUC review process and tried to "ram this project forward to the point of no return in spite of the fact there were still outstanding cases moving through the courts and it did not meet the legal standard of consultation [with First Nations]."
Chris Gardner, president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of B.C., a group that represents non-union contractors, said the UN report paints an incomplete picture as to how much work BC Hydro has done consulting with First Nations on Site C.
"BC Hydro has met with Indigenous communities extensively and has provided capacity funding for First Nations to participate in the consultation process," he said in an e-mailed statement. "Site C is being constructed and will have to operate within the parameters of more than 150 legally binding environmental and technical conditions."
He also said "it should not be lost on anyone" that the members of the UN committee that wrote the report represent countries that include Algeria, China, Pakistan, Russia and Turkey, "all countries with records on human rights that would not meet Canadian standards."
Michelle Mungall, B.C.'s Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, does not want to make any further comment on Site C until the BCUC review is finished, her spokesperson said Monday. Then, the government will take those recommendations, along with other environmental and First Nations considerations to make a final decision on the project.
The New Democrats have not said what they intend to do if Site C is ruled economically viable, but the Greens, whose three MLAs are supporting the minority NDP government, say they are directly opposed to building such destructive and unnecessary "20th-century megaprojects."
On Monday, Green Leader Andrew Weaver, who supported the project years ago as an adviser to then-premier Gordon Campbell, praised the UN panel for recognizing the need to better integrate consent from Indigenous people into the Canadian regulatory system.
The BC Liberal Party, which championed the Site C dam until it lost power earlier this year, said BC Hydro consulted extensively with all affected First Nations and the courts have ruled in favour of the project going ahead on multiple occasions.
The BCUC is accepting data and analysis from citizens until Wednesday and has included a consultation phase to gather feedback from First Nations, according to a spokesperson.