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Site C Won't Be The 1st Time Canada Failed First Nations, But Make It The Last

This time it was supposed to be different; profoundly and entirely different. But in the end, it was same old, same old.

12/18/2017 15:22 EST | Updated 12/18/2017 15:26 EST

Alongside First Nations, local farmers and landowners and the many environmental campaigners who have long pressed for an end to the destructive Site C dam project in the Peace Valley in northeastern British Columbia, Amnesty International had great hopes that a new government in B.C. would finally put its human rights obligations at the heart of decision-making about the dam's future.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
The Site C Dam location is seen along the Peace River in Fort St. John, B.C., on April 18, 2017.

After all, numerous NDP members of the Legislative Assembly — some political veterans and others newly elected — were clearly and passionately on the record expressing forceful opposition to Site C, sometimes going back many years. Importantly, many recognized that going forward with construction in the face of clear opposition from First Nations would contravene the province's commitments under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Many of these politicians had backed up expressions of opposition by adding their names to the grassroots Yellow Stake Campaign, thereby declaring full support for the call to #StopSiteC, recorded on stakes that still stand in full view in the Valley.

Against that political backdrop, when I joined the annual Paddle for the Peace in July of this year, the anticipation that the change of government would indeed bring an end to the dam was palpable.

People pointed out that John Horgan had, more than three years ago, clearly stated that Site C would violate the "entrenched constitutional rights" of First Nations in the Valley to hunting and fishing. Furthermore, upon assuming office he had made it clear that implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in conjunction with a "cross-government vision of reconciliation" would be the hallmarks of his government.

And of course, the opposition to Site C on the part of the NDP's Green Party allies, who provide them with the balance of power in the legislature following May's razor-close election, was incontrovertible.

Ben Nelms / Reuters
British Columbia's New Democratic Party (NDP) leader John Horgan.

Expectations continued to grow when the B.C. Utilities Commission issued its report in November, having been tasked by the Horgan government with reviewing the economic viability of the dam. The report made it clear that despite the money already invested in Site C, less destructive alternatives remained economically viable.

All of this is why the decision to push ahead with construction, towards completion of the dam, was so crushingly disappointing.

This time it was supposed to be different; profoundly and entirely different.

But in the end, it was same old, same old.

Premier John Horgan offered a number of explanations for what, at the end of the day, is truly a flagrantly unprincipled decision. They all, however, are nothing but empty excuses.

Because the heart of it all comes down to these cowardly words: "I'm not the first person to stand before you and disappoint Indigenous people."

The First Nations of the Peace Valley have known nothing but disappointment when it comes to Site C.

No one would dispute the truth of those words. It would, in fact, be impossible to count the literally endless number of politicians — just in British Columbia, let alone the rest of Canada — who have gravely and irreparably "disappointed" Indigenous people for well over 150 years.

Reconciliation means acknowledging and undoing the harms of the past and making sure that they are not repeated again. It does not mean continuing the very same human rights violations while claiming to at least not be any worse than previous leaders.

Premier Hogan's aspiration, rather than joining that long queue of disappointment, should have been to proudly and confidently say to the people of British Columbia, "I will not be yet another person who stands before you and disappoints Indigenous peoples. The disappointment ends now. "

That courageous stand was not to be.

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pauses while speaking during the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final report in Ottawa on Dec. 15, 2015.

The First Nations of the Peace Valley have known nothing but disappointment when it comes to Site C, certainly over many long years at the hands of various B.C. provincial governments; but disappointment as well from Justin Trudeau, who similarly had come into office with great promises about new respect for Indigenous peoples, a commitment to reconciliation and embrace of the UN declaration. Yet when the Trudeau government had the opportunity, in July, 2016, to deny permits that were needed in order for construction to proceed, disappointment readily won the day. The rights of Indigenous peoples were pushed to the side and the permits were issued by two of his ministries.

This week's decision came as such a blow that it felt, at first, to somehow mark the end of this epic struggle.

But it is not, cannot and will not be the end. Not when fundamental human rights are on the line.

Already there is talk of a legal challenge. And with that there will be important decisions for both the Horgan and Trudeau governments to make about what they will instruct their lawyers to argue in court. Will it be more opposition and disappointment? Or will they redeem themselves and adopt reasonable positions that are grounded in respect for the rights of Indigenous peoples?

The disappointment does run deep, much like the waters of the Peace River.

And it can and must end.

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