A day after B.C.'s ruling New Democrats and their allies in labour groups made statements to mark the UN’s International Human Rights Day on December 10, the Indigenous peoples of the province were given a rude shock with the announcement of the provincial government’s green light for the controversial Site C dam project.
The proposed dam is going to flood Indigenous communities and destroy farmland in the Peace River valley. This won't just displace many people, but it will also destroy their sustainable livelihood and submerge the burial grounds of their elders and their cultural connection with the land.
Amnesty International has issued a statement pointing out that this decision violates the human rights of the Indigenous peoples in that region. Indigenous groups, ranchers, and environmentalists have been opposing Site C for years.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the BC Union of Indian Chiefs feels completely betrayed by the NDP’s announcement. He says Premier John Horgan, who came to power this summer ending 16 years of rule by the BC Liberals, had previously supported their demand to scrap the project. “I’m totally convinced Horgan has inflicted irreparable harm on the NDP brand in British Columbia,” Phillip told the Vancouver Courier.
Many others who opposed Site C and believed the new government would bury it also feel deceived. Many in the NDP caucus claim that they too were opposed to the project but had to make a hard choice partly because they need to generate revenue for social spending and partly because the previous government had reached a “point of no return” with Site C, meaning that scrapping the mega-project completely would cost them too much. The NDP caucus unanimously approved the decision.
This was all allowed to happen despite claims by the government that it’s starting a fresh era of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. Not only did the Dec. 11 Site C announcement eclipse the reconciliation message, it brought back ugly memories of the Gustafsen Lake episode of 1995 — when the NDP government of the day sent a massive police contingent to suppress resistance by Indigenous land defenders.
The Site C decision once again brings the NDP in conflict with First Nations. The mega-project will take away the right to a traditional livelihood from the region’s Indigenous peoples who are going to lose a food basket and fishing ground.
Unfortunately, the current government's understanding of Indigenous issues now appears no different from the previous government's. Both governments have sold the idea of Site C by pointing to economic considerations. One difference is that, under the NDP, big labour unions who have the government’s ear are now pitted against the interests of Indigenous communities.
A discourse of jobs versus environment, or development versus forests, is often created and spread without recognizing the perspective of Indigenous peoples and their sustainable model of progress that is well suited to save the planet from destruction in the long run. Those blinded by urban and corporate models of development, despite now-universal concern about climate change and global warming, will never appreciate the realistic alternatives provided by the Indigenous communities.
The NDP leadership has proven it is no exception. It is time that the NDP and the entire labour movement start respecting the human rights of Indigenous peoples and think about other alternatives for job creation and a booming economy. For starters, they could prioritize investing in renewable energy and technology, and transit and social housing, instead of buckling under pressure from big business and their bottomless corporate greed.