'A reconciliation fail': B.C. First Nations promise court action over NDP's approval of Site C

The West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations have promised to go to court to stop the Site C dam, while others criticized the NDP for breaking campaign promises to respect the rights of Indigenous people.

'There are thousands of people that are bitterly disappointed,' says leader of Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs

Indigenous protesters camped out near the Site C dam project in northern B.C for several months in 2015 and 2016. (Yvonne Tupper)

Moments after B.C. Premier John Horgan announced his government would allow construction of the Site C dam to move forward, the West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations promised to go to court to stop the project, while others criticized the NDP for breaking campaign promises to respect the rights of Indigenous people.

"This sets the tone for the next four years with this government," said West Moberly Chief Roland Willson.

Willson and Prophet River First Nation chief Lynette Tzakoza said their legal counsel would be filing a court injunction to stop construction of Site C, on the grounds that it violates the 1899 Treaty No. 8 agreement.

A similar injunction sought by the Blueberry River First Nation ahead of a court case to be heard in 2018 was denied earlier this year.

The question of whether Site C violates treaty rights has yet to be tested, after a Supreme Court ruling found government ministers lack the expertise to make such a judgment.

In Alberta, Melody Lepine of the Mikisew Cree First Nation called the decision a "reconciliation fail."

The Mikisew are one of several Indigenous organizations and environmental groups warning Site C could have negative impacts on ecosystems downstream of the project.

Dams on the Peace River in B.C. threaten the health of Alberta's Wood Buffalo National park, says UNESCO. (UNESCO)

"The [Peace-Athabasca] Delta is already dying," Lepine said. "Our fear is this is going to destroy the delta."

Five First Nations have signed benefits agreements with BC Hydro for Site C to go forward, but only Chief Harley Chingee of the McLeod Lake Indian Band spoke in favour, saying the benefits of Site C are a step toward "economic reconciliation."

In contrast, Chief Trevor Makadahay of the Doig River First Nation said his community had little choice but to sign on with a project that was moving forward with or without them.

"We felt without our input on our grave sites and cultural history in the area, it would be lost forever," he said.

"The community has never given consent, just non-objection."

The leadership of the Dene Tha', Salteau and Halfway River First Nations did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said "the battle will continue" in the fight against Site C.

"A nod of approval doesn't guarantee that this project will, in fact, happen," he said. "Certainly, there are thousands of people that are bitterly disappointed."

Horgan acknowledged that fact, telling reporters, "I'm not the first person to stand before you and disappoint Indigenous people," while continuing to promise to forge a better relationship with First Nations.

Willson said Horgan had a change to show his commitment to that relationship by cancelling the project, but "when it came to the decision, he buckled his knees." 

Willson encouraged NDP voters and MLAs to leave the party over the issue.

"When you lie with dogs, you get fleas," he said.

About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

@akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is a radio producer and digital journalist in northern British Columbia, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George. Email: andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca | Twitter: @akurjata | Secure PGP: http://www.akurjata.ca