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Cancelling the Site C dam will be a tough pill to swallow – but alternatives are harsher

The authors are former New Democratic Party MLAs. Jim Beattie represented Okanagan-Penticton between 1991-1996. John Cashore served in cabinet posts as minister for aboriginal affairs and environment between 1986 and 2001. Corky Evans is a former forests and health minister and leadership candidate who served from 1991 to 2001 and from 2005 to 2009. Tom Perry sat from 1986 to 1996 and served in cabinet as advanced education minister. Joan Sawicki sat from 1991 to 2001, including two years as speaker, and in cabinet as environment minister. David Zirnhelt sat from 1989 to 2001 and served in cabinet as forests minister, among other portfolios.

To proceed or not to proceed with Site C may be the most challenging decision Premier John Horgan and his cabinet will face. We hope for a decision to cancel this misbegotten project. We also believe that cancellation with remediation should be accompanied by a detailed plan for British Columbia to follow a path to less costly, less invasive and more flexible renewable energy sources. Appropriate technologies (wind, solar, geothermal) are available, proven and cost-effective. But Canada and British Columbia lag far behind others in implementing these technologies.

Stopping the dam and remediating the Peace River Valley would mean walking away from the "sunk costs." This is a huge sum to write off, but we should remember that most of the money spent so far was for wages, and recirculated in our economy. The estimated $4-billion cost of cancelling the project will also include pay for workers to restore the site.

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Completing Site C to generate power that is not needed in B.C. (and may be difficult to sell) means a further expenditure of more than $8-billion. This would saddle British Columbians with high electricity bills long into the future, with no apparent benefits. Sunk costs loom large in psychological terms, but in economic calculus, they are not a compelling reason to complete Site C. We urge Mr. Horgan and his cabinet not to fall into this trap. It is more rational to swallow the losses and move forward in an economically and politically positive direction.

A decision not to proceed with Site C should include a plan for supporting communities and workers that would be affected economically in the short term. Cleanup and restoration will involve many construction, supply and professional jobs for several years. Thus, cancellation should have limited immediate employment impact. Making the Peace region a focus for alternative energy development (wind, geothermal) would ensure a continuing legacy of economic development.

Apart from the economic, agricultural, wildlife, landscape and engineering issues posed by Site C, where does reconciliation with Indigenous peoples fit? Earlier B.C. governments displayed crass insensitivity to people whose ancestors lived here long before Western civilizations existed. In the 1950s, Cheslatta hunters living northwest of Quesnel returned home to find their sacred burial grounds under water. Printed notices had given them four days to vacate their houses on the edge of Ootsa Lake to make way for the Kemano project. In the 1960s, the Bennett Dam caused similar harms to the Tse Keh Dene when it drowned the Finlay, Parsnip and Peace Rivers to form Williston Reservoir. Far downstream in the Peace-Athabaska Delta of Alberta, the Peace River's spring flood was blocked for the first time since the Ice Age. This caused widespread ecological changes and devastated the self-reliant culture of Cree and Chipewyan people.

Shall we leave nothing in the Peace to future generations of what our Indigenous peoples had known since time immemorial? The Yukon government has partnered with First Nations to develop geothermal power. A similar energy partnership in B.C.'s northeast could be an important step toward reconciliation.

As we see it, cancellation of the Site C project can be the centrepiece of British Columbia's action on climate change. Cabinet can re-direct enormous legislatively committed resources. Public initiative can turn from a project that is costly, unnecessary and environmentally and socially destructive to projects that are essential, positive and socially restorative.

A cabinet decision to proceed with or to cancel Site C will deliver electrical energy. But cancelling Site C and initiating a modern renewable energy program can deliver much more than power. Additional long-term benefits from cancellation include a moral and psychological sea change for our province and for Canada. Turning away from our unsustainable assault on nature can generate real optimism for our own future and that of our children.

NDP governments have left significant legacies to British Columbia. The Agricultural Land Reserve, a strong forest practices code, a provincial ambulance service, PharmaCare and meaningful treaty negotiations to name a few. A strategy for power generation that incorporates new, less invasive technologies, distributed and community-based power sources, and smart microgrids could be this NDP government's most significant legacy. Let's get on with it.

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The authors are former New Democratic Party MLAs. Jim Beattie represented Okanagan-Penticton between 1991-1996. John Cashore served in cabinet posts as minister for aboriginal affairs and environment between 1986 and 2001. Corky Evans is a former forests and health minister and leadership candidate who served from 1991 to 2001 and from 2005 to 2009. Tom Perry sat from 1986 to 1996 and served in cabinet as advanced education minister. Joan Sawicki sat from 1991 to 2001, including two years as speaker, and in cabinet as environment minister. David Zirnhelt sat from 1989 to 2001 and served in cabinet as forests minister, among other portfolios.

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