British Columbia

Why B.C.'s Site C dam could become a national issue

It's been 21 months since the provincial government approved the dam, but opponents are steadfast that the fight isn't over.

Opponents of the $8.8 billion dam hope this week's federal court case marks a tipping point

The Treaty 8 Justice for Peace Caravan bus has been driving across Canada hoping to gain support for its opposition to the controversial Site C dam in B.C. which was approved in December, 2014. (Treaty 8 Justice for Peace Caravan/Facebook)

For the last week, a large bus with the slogan "Stand with First Nations to protect the Peace River" on its sides has been making its way across Canada.

A federal judge will hear an appeal from two northeastern B.C. First Nations groups in Montreal on Monday about the $8.8 billion dam known as Site C. The Treaty 8 First Nations want construction to stop on the Site C dam site, saying it infringes on their traditional hunting, fishing and trapping rights. 

"We share traditional land that's untouched from all the effects from oil and gas and forestry and mining. We want to keep that area prime, we don't want it touched," says Yvonne Tupper, a Treaty 8 Steward of the Land.

Tupper and the other people on the bus have travelled thousands of miles — literally and figuratively — to get where they are today. 

But 21 months after it was approved by the province of British Columbia, Site C opponents believe the fight is now at a tipping point. 

Here's what you need to know about where the debate stands today. 

What is Site C anyway?

Site C is the large hydroelectric dam being constructed on the Peace River between Fort St. John and Hudson's Hope, B.C. 

BC Hydro says the dam would create 5,100 gigawatt hours of energy each year, enough to power 450,000 homes.

However, to create the reservoir, 83 kilometres of river valley will be flooded, wiping out 5,550 hectares of land.

Part of the Peace River valley scheduled to be flooded in order to build the Site C dam in northeastern British Columbia. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

At least 69 per cent of that is agricultural land, and the area is dotted with farmers, ranchers who would be forced to move, along with traditional First Nations grounds and heritage sites. 

As for the name? It was the third location on the Peace River considered for a dam by the provincial government in the 1980s, after "Site A" (W.A.C. Bennett Dam) and "Site B" (Peace Canyon) dam were built. 

It is expected to be completed in 2024. 

Wasn't it approved in 2014?

After decades and start-and-stop studies and consultations, the provincial government announced it had approved the project in December 2014

On that day, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs declared that Site C "will never see the light of day," and since then, there have been at least seven lawsuits against the project.

"There are two very distinct avenues that legal action has taken place from: One from landowners in the valley, one from First Nations," says Jonny Wakefield, a reporter with the Dawson Creek Mirror and Alaska Highway News who has covered the process since the government's approval. 

Prep work for construction of the Site C dam takes place along the Peace River in 2016. According to BC Hydro, 2,357 people were employed by Site C in August, 2017. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

All of the cases have gone in BC Hydro's favour thus far, but that hasn't dampened opposition from stakeholders directly affected. 

"I'm not sure anyone dead-set opposed to this project is going to admit defeat until the reservoir itself is in place," says Wakefield.

As the legal cases have wound their way through the system, BC Hydro has started site work, built a bridge across the Peace River, and begun construction of a $470-million camp for the 1,600 workers expected on the project — which may even have a bar

Why has opposition grown?

While the Site C dam has always had both critics and supporters in the Peace Region, a number of factors has hardened opposition in the last two years.

Wakefield says that lawsuits and construction have put human and physical faces on a project which for decades was only theoretical in people's minds.

"It's really been a process over the last year of construction for the broader public to realize 'this is actually happening, and we might want to do something about it,'" he says.

Karen Goodings, an elected representative for the regional government in the rural Peace River Regional District affected by the dam, also says a number of details have come forward in last year that have soured locals on the mega-project.

In 2015, Harry Swain, the chair of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency's review panel, said there were better alternatives and that the approval process was rushed.

Protesters at the Site C dam project in northern B.C. have posted signs near the worksite. (Yvonne Tupper)

In August, BC Hydro's community relations manager said the energy gained from Site C wouldn't be needed for 20 to 40 years

"I think that has been huge in making people realize the mistake," argues Goodings.

At the same time, the economic benefits for the Peace Region haven't materialized as expected, so far.

In July, BC Hydro reported there were 1,547 workers on the project, but just 28 per cent of them were from the Peace — and it's an open debate in the region how many of the non-local workers are contributing to the local economy. 

"Pretty much the entire workforce is in a worker camp," says Wakefield.

"You hear a lot of bars and restaurants saying 'hey, it's actually pretty quiet, where's all this economic activity we were promised?'" 

Meanwhile, in its latest newsletter about the project, BC Hydro says it has made more than $4 billion in financial commitments, including contracts and agreements, during the first year of the project.

Does this court hearing stand a chance?

Monday's case in the Federal Court of Appeal focuses on the West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations, who say flooding the valley infringes on their constitutionally protected rights. 

While they haven't had success in provincial courts—this particular case was dismissed by a lower court in B.C. in 2015—opponents of Site C are hoping the tide will turn as the issue is fought federally.

"The crux of it will be the court case. [I] don't know how long after that court case has been heard it will take to make a decision, but that certainly will have a huge impact on what we're doing," says Goodings.

And if that fails, there's always the court of public opinion. 

​"We're winning the people, and the people matter," says Tupper, who is hopeful two permits granted by the government this summer will be the last. "If this is a democratic society, like I learned in the school system, if we win over the people, then we win over the leaders.

"The public hears from Justin Trudeau about respecting Indigenous people, and that Indigenous people will lead the way to environmental concerns and climate change, [but] actions speak louder than words."

BC Hydro has put up signs alongside the Peace River near the area where the Site C dam will be built. (Justin McElroy/CBC)