Worried about downstream impacts, Northern leaders urge action on Site C dam

A court decision this week on the proposed Site C dam on British Columbia's Peace River has some Northern leaders worried about rivers downstream.

'Site C is just increasing the damages that have already been done on the river system' says Francois Paulette

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)

A court decision this week on the proposed Site C dam on British Columbia's Peace River has some Northern leaders worried about rivers downstream.

On Monday, the Federal Court of Appeal rejected the latest in a string of legal challenges waged by First Nations groups living near the 5,500 hectares of the Peace River Valley that will be flooded if dam construction goes ahead.

"Not only am I surprised, I'm also very disappointed," says Samuel Gargan, mayor of Fort Providence and chair of the Water Protectors group.

He says consultation around the dam has failed to take into account people further down the Mackenzie River drainage basin.  

"The Peace flows into Athabasca Lake, and then it flows into Slave Lake… so those are the rivers that link us. And there are a lot of times in the springtime that we don't have access to the creeks that people use for hunting beavers, and muskrats if there's any. And also the low water level does restrict a lot of access to traditional areas."

He says the W.A.C Bennet Dam, upriver from Site C, "created lot of problems here in the North" when it was built in the 1960s.

Fort Smith's Francois Paulette, who chairs the Slave River Coalition, agrees.

Francois Paulette of Fort Smith, N.W.T. (Pat Kane/CBC)

"Site C is just increasing the damages that have already been done on the river system all the way to the Arctic Ocean," he says.

"One of the biggest ones is the loss of muskrats in the Peace, Athabasca, the delta of the Slave River, Fort Res… [And] right now the water is so low [people] have a difficult time navigating the river. So Site C is only going to do more damage to transportation routes."

Paulette says he wants leaders along the whole length of Mackenzie drainage basin to mount legal challenges to dam. That includes the N.W.T. government.

"I know the territorial government will probably never intervene, or launch a court case, because they're tied in with the [B.C. and federal] governments. But that's one area where the territorial government can really do something, because it affects the river system."

Transboundary water agreements toothless: former MP

Former N.W.T. Member of Parliament Dennis Bevington, who spent four years in the 1990s working on the Northern River Basin Study looking at dam impact, agrees that it's unlikely the N.W.T. government would press a case against B.C. despite the dam's potential impact on territorial rivers and livelihoods.

"The Mackenzie River Basin Board is virtually toothless. And the bilateral, transboundary water agreements haven't seemed to have much impact as well," he says.

"There have been some mechanisms put in place to encourage conversation about the river system, but we have yet to see those really take hold and demand certain things from upstream users."

He says the whole dam project has been a "boondoggle," and claims that "a number of analyses have shown that the Site C dam is not really required for the needs of B.C. over the medium term."

Right now, however, with legal challenges proving unsuccessful, it will likely fall to voters in the upcoming B.C. election to decide whether or not dam construction goes ahead, he says.

Gargan, for his part, says "there's always a plan B" when it comes to legal challenges.

"One [of the things] we could probably look at is the Paris Agreement. There are sections in there... on how we might be able to address the Site C dam."


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