Reflecting on the Site C Dam: An Environmental Lawyer’s Perspective

The work of environmental law in a time of intertwined biodiversity and climate crises is not just an intellectual or professional exercise for me and my colleagues at West Coast Environmental Law. This is particularly the case when decisions are made about mega-projects that fly in the face of law, science and self-determination of Indigenous peoples. Over this past COVID winter, for example, we felt the weight of stress and uncertainty about that fate of the Site C dam.

We wrote about  Site C in August 2016 and since then, the destruction of the Peace River Valley has continued, while billions more dollars have been spent. On February 26, 2021 the BC government that it would continue construction of Site C.

This month I am sharing some reflections from by my colleagues Maxine Hayman Matilpi and Georgia Lloyd-Smith about Site C.

Maxine writes:

In recent months, provincial decision-makers were supposedly reconsidering the Site C project and had commissioned two reports (concerning geotechnical issues and safety for workers and the public) to help make their decision. Georgia and I hoped for some 7-generation foresight and a courageous development of an exit strategy that would protect the Peace River Valley, take care of workers, and uphold Treaty 8.

While we waited for their decision, we took care of our stress through personal actions like letter writing and engaging with like-minded allies. We also leaned on the work of Joanna Macy imagining an intact Peace River Valley and dreamt up other ways of spending $3 million a day (on projects like solar, wind and geothermal, as well as housing, public transit, education, hospitals, and clean drinking water on reserves).

This imagining is described in the Great Turning, by Joanna Macy, ecofeminist, systems theorist and philosopher. Macy describes the Great Turning as that shift from the Industrial Growth Society to a life-sustaining civilization, “a global awakening of the dis-ease of our planet, our love of life and the revolution that can heal our world.” Macy advises us to develop loving relationships with places and non-human beings like rivers, mountains, plants. We want to protect what we love.

We work for a non-profit, West Coast Environmental Law, which means sometimes we come to love the places we’ve worked to protect and understand what’s at stake so it becomes impossible to not pay attention to what’s going on. Our organization has been involved on the Site C dam issue over the years primarily focussing on enabling legal support to impacted communities. We were deeply involved in the environmental assessment of Site C by providing legal aid through our Environmental Dispute Resolution Fund (EDRF), and Staff Lawyer Anna Johnston’s representation of the Peace Valley Environmental Association in the assessment. The EDRF has also supported legal challenges by West Moberly First Nation to the Site C project.

Georgia and I have personal connections too. In my August 2016 blog, I described how my heart was opened though my first-hand connections with the kids in Tsay Keh and by learning of the human, animal and territorial sufferings resulting from an earlier mega-project, the Bennett Dam. Georgia spent time in the Peace Athabasca Delta learning from elders from the Mikisew Cree First Nation and witnessing herself how the Bennett Dam has disrupted the flow of water so drastically that entire lakes disappeared. The elders spoke longingly of the “pre- Bennett” times, like how we refer to the “pre-COVID” times.

Years later, we cannot forget the suffering caused by the Bennett Dam and we recognize the connections with the present-day suffering with Site C. Sometimes we’d like to forget this is going on. The COVID-19 pandemic is hard enough, but the connections we’ve developed make it impossible to turn away.

“Once you know some things, you can’t unknow them. It’s a burden that can never be given away,” (Alice Hoffman)

Opening our hearts; acknowledging our ecological grief.

There are many reasons why we might close our hearts or turn away from thinking about environmental destruction or climate change or Site C. It’s depressing. Or we feel powerless because we don’t know what to do, or it’s beyond what we’re able to cope with. Maybe we don’t want to disturb the status quo, or we feel like there’s no point and we’ve lost hope.

I’ve learned to acknowledge my feelings of dread, rage, sorrow, guilt and agree with Joanna Macy that deliberately facing this pain can be liberating. “Pain is actually a wholesome response that comes from our caring and our connectedness; it says we are compassionate human beings.”

A friend posted on Twitter about the impact of Site C on a spectacular and rare hillside wetland called a tufa seep. I looked up “tufa seep” and learned this seep likely took thousands of years to form, making it older than the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Great Wall of China.

My friend had made an altar, laid down tobacco, eucalyptus, dried rose petals and sage. And in a bowl some clean, pure water from the same magical, ancient tufa seeps which were destroyed this past winter in the Peace Valley. She told me: “We are some of the last people to have ever experienced them, I’m heartbroken to say.”

As BC cabinet ministers reconsidered this mega-dam (and ultimately decided to continue), we spoke about the increasing risks, skyrocketing costs and the fact that giant dams are not clean (despite the Orwellian messaging calling it the “Site C Clean Energy Project”). We reminded others of the problems with methane and mercury from decomposing trees like what happened in the W.A.C. Bennett Dam’s Williston Reservoir (still considered a dead zone decades after it was created), the mounting costs, financial risks, the lack of transparency and secrecy. We made comparisons to Muskrat Falls and “boondoggles and considered food security and the loss of alluvial soil in “BC’s Bread Basket”. For more background check out this 10-minute Gumby & Pokey video created by 16-year-old film-maker.

But sadly, BC Hydro and the government seem determined to make this valley into a sacrifice zone. In what was once a bountiful, biodiverse region, there’s now a huge scar on the landscape which can’t possibly be in the best interests of British Columbians. According to their mandate letters, BC cabinet ministers are supposed to be working towards “lasting and meaningful reconciliation” and implementing the BC Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act. This ongoing violation of Treaty 8 through the cumulative effects of development on Treaty rights is the subject matter of the legal actions of the West Moberly First Nation, leading some of us to jokingly say that it should be called the Truth and Reconciliation Dam.

What do we do now?

For those of us who still want to stop Site C, it’s important to remember it’s not too late. In fact, when it comes to hydro-electric dams, it’s probably never too late. Remember the Elwha River? The lands, waters, fish and animals are now thriving along this Washington waterway, after two large dams were removed to restore endangered salmon habitat – making it the largest dam removal project in U.S. history.

The need for a public inquiry has not gone away, nor has the need to support the West Moberly First Nation.

No matter how this story unfolds, I want to be a good ancestor to my descendants. I want my grandchildren to know I did everything I could. I wrote letters and blogs. I organized petitions, made buttons and art installations. I talked to friends and neighbours and when they were young, I reminded my children of the kids in Tsay Keh and the price they paid for that so-called cheap electricity.

Georgia is still talking to friends about the project and reaching out to decision-makers. I continue praying.”


MOTHER’S PRAYER adapted by Rebecca Solnit and re-adapted by Maxine Matilpi

Our mother who art underfoot,
hallowed be thy names.
Thy seasons come, thy will be done,
within us as around us.
Thank you for our daily bread, the water, the air,
and our lives and so much beauty.
Lead us not into selfish craving and the destructions
that are the hungers of the glutted,
but deliver us from wanton consumption
of thy vast but finite offerings.
For thine is the only sphere of life we know,
and the power and the glory, forever and ever.

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