By Craig Benjamin, AJ Klein and Grand Chief Stewart Phillip
A shorter version of this blog was published by the Vancouver Sun on Tuesday, July 17, 2018. The blog is based on a joint paper prepared by the West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations and numerous allies.
This month as the world’s diplomats gather in New York to review progress in implementing the United Nation’s vision of fair and sustainable economic development, Canada wants its own record front and centre. Last year, Prime Minister Trudeau told the UN that the sustainable development goals are “as meaningful in Canada as they are everywhere else in the world.” This year, Canada has put itself forward to be one of only a handful of nations that will be subject to a voluntary review during the UN’s High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.
The massive Site C dam project in northeast BC has become emblematic of the gulf between the progressive public rhetoric of Canadian politicians and the reality of how major investments by the federal and provincial governments often play out the ground.
The federal environment commissioner has already described Canada’s commitment to the sustainable development goals as more rhetoric than reality. In a report tabled earlier this year, the Commissioner said that a lack of leadership and coordination means that Canada is unable to meet the sustainable goals as agreed upon by the international community.
There’s worse news than this, however, for Canada’s efforts to paint itself as a champion of sustainable development. The massive Site C dam project in northeast BC has become emblematic of the gulf between the progressive public rhetoric of Canadian politicians and the reality of how major investments by the federal and provincial governments often play out the ground.
At a price tag of almost $11 billion and climbing, Site C is one of the largest energy development projects on the continent. Although BC Hydro continues to bill Site C as a ‘green energy’ project, nothing could be farther from the truth – a fact that is not likely to escape notice during the sustainable development forum.
A planned environmental disaster
The UN’s sustainable development goals call on all states to promote conservation and halt biodiversity loss. The Site C dam is a planned environmental disaster that will wipe out more than 100 km of unique valley ecosystem that shelters rare and threatened species of plants and animals. A group of Canadian academics who studied the joint federal-provincial assessment of the dam found that the “number and scope” of harms identified by the joint review panel was “unprecedented in the history of environmental assessment in Canada.” UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has also raised as yet unaddressed concerns about downstream impacts at the Wood Buffalo National Park.
The UN’s sustainable development goals also commit states to addressing food security, including by promoting more resilient agricultural systems able to adapt to climate change and natural disasters. In addition to loss of natural habitat, the Site C dam will destroy some of BC’s most fertile farmland and uproot multi-generation family farms. Because of the mild micro-climate created by the valley, which is unique at a such a northern latitude, the lands that would be flooded by the Site C could provide a crucial bulwark against the impacts of climate change. A particular focus of the sustainable development goals, and of this year’s UN forum, is on poverty alleviation and universal access to “affordable, reliable and sustainable energy.” BC Hydro has never made the case why a project of the scale of Site C is even needed and last year’s review by the BC Utilities Commission served only to further underline this fact. Wasteful spending to produce surplus energy will inevitably lead to further increases in household electricity rates. The cost of utilities is already one of the most significant barriers to safe, affordable housing for low-income individuals and families in BC.
Abject failure to respect the rights of First Nations
The 2030 agenda also grounds economic development in the responsibility of all states to respect and protect human rights without discrimination. One of the most shameful aspects of the Site C dam is the abject failure to respect the rights of First Nations who seek to preserve the Peace Valley as one of the few remaining areas in the region where they can still practice their cultures and traditions.
Consider this as well: the BC government is currently in front of the courts fighting against First Nations so that construction of the Site C can continue even though the government acknowledges that their Constitutionally-protected Treaty rights have been ignored. The legal tactics being used by the province are at odds with the sustainable development goals which describe “democracy, good governance and the rule of law” – including access to justice – as the “enabling environment” essential for sustainable development.
An international embarrassment
The Site C dam is already an international embarrassment to Canada. Last August, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination – the UN’s top anti-racism body – called for an immediate halt to construction and further underlined the urgency of its concerns by calling in Canada to report back within one year on measures to uphold the rights of Indigenous peoples in the Peace Valley. The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has told Canada that it will take the extraordinary step of listing of Wood Buffalo Park as “in danger” unless Canada conducts a study of the downstream impacts of Site C. The UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights also noted concerns about Site C in its report of its 2017 visit to Canada. Even the United States flagged concern about Site C when Canada’s record was considered at the UN Human Rights Council in May.
Of course the federal and provincial governments could allay all these concerns by withdrawing their permits for this destructive and unnecessary mega project. With the UN’s sustainable development agenda, Canada has already embraced – and indeed championed – an alternative vision in which economic development is pursued in ways that compatible with and supportive of our social and environment values. Now Canada needs to live up to that vision. At the very least, the federal and provincial governments should not be pursuing projects like Site C that so sharply contradict Canada’s international commitments.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip is president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. A.J. Klein is an organizer with the Council of Canadians. Craig Benjamin is Campaigner for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples with Amnesty International Canada.
Read the joint paper on Site C and UN agenda for sustainable development: