After 21 years as chief of West Moberly First Nations, Roland Willson has a few legal challenges under his belt. He’s presided over successful cases to push back against coal mining and protect declining caribou herds in his people’s northeastern B.C. territory. So when he was in court last month, pressing B.C. to disclose critical geo-technical data that the province has kept under wraps, he was well versed in what rights Treaty 8 Nations are standing upon.

West Moberly are making a last stand against the Site C Dam — the $16-billion project that is under construction in Treaty 8 territory, home to the Dunne-za (West Moberly) people.

Their case, to be heard next year in the B.C. Supreme Court, is massive. The evidence they are collecting will take into account not only Site C but the cumulative impacts from two existing dams on the Peace River, the W.A.C. Bennett and Peace Canyon dams. Based on the argument that treaty rights — to hunt, fish, and practise culture in their territory — will be rendered meaningless once the last, best river valley in their territory is flooded, West Moberly’s case may be the most viable path to stopping Site C and restoring ecosystems in the region.

West Moberly’s challenge rests on three pillars: that Site C Dam is unsafe, unnecessary, and unlawful.

Unsafe because of the loose shale foundation that B.C.’s own experts have warned poses significant risk, as it affects the dam’s ability to withstand tremendous pressure from impounded water. Unnecessary because, according to the B.C. Utilities Commission, the province could obtain power equivalent to that generated by the Site C dam from existing hydroelectric infrastructure, at a savings of billions of dollars. And unlawful because Treaty 8 does not allow the Crown to permanently destroy large tracts of treaty lands vital to Indigenous Nations.

Building one of the biggest dams in the world should not supersede an Indigenous Nation’s right to hunt, fish, and practice their culture in any case. But building a dam that poses serious risks, without a proven need for the power, at an outrageous cost compared to the alternatives? That’s the stronger case that West Moberly are crafting.

“The government has essentially written a blank cheque to corporations like SNC Lavalin.”

Back in February, the B.C. government announced that following an internal review forced by mounting costs and geotechnical instability, they intended to press ahead with Site C. The province released just a summary of the review, conducted by Peter Milburn, as part of the rationale for their decision.

In the recent hearing, West Moberly argued that knowing the details of geological risks — from the unstable shale foundation to the risk of earthquakes and landslides — is essential to making their case.
B.C. Hydro argued that the critical issue — whether the dam is safe or risks collapse — has no impact on Indigenous treaty rights.

“We must tell everyone living below the dam that news,” quipped Chief Willson.

Clean power? Dirty money

Before taking on his role with environmental organization Dogwood, Kai Nagata was a journalist whose beat was uncovering influence peddling and corruption around public projects. In the case of Site C, Nagata says, “With a budget this big, massive direct award contracts, and zero public oversight … this is like catnip for corporations looking to transfer public wealth into private hands. The government has essentially written a blank cheque to corporations like SNC Lavalin.”

On the recent hearing to compel disclosure of geotechnical data to West Moberly, Nagata says it’s part of a pattern of lack of transparency that is dangerous to democracy. “You have a $16-billion black hole. Into that goes accountability, transparency, and the obligation of our public office holders to justify the opportunity costs.”

If a project can only go ahead under this level of secrecy, and it can’t hold up to public scrutiny, it probably should not go ahead.”

While he agrees it’s unfair that West Moberly should have to dig into their own pockets to compel disclosure of critical information, “the courts are one of the only tools we have to unearth the information that the public paid for and the public deserves to have in its hand.”

A thousand cuts

The Peace River Valley is known as the “Valley of the Southern North.” It’s so warm in the summer that prickly pear cacti grow along the riverbanks. Long a migration route for caribou, the watershed has been a refuge for Indigenous Peoples, a place where they could hunt, fish and gather, carry out ceremonies, and tend to the graves of their ancestors.

Though West Moberly First Nation has pushed back, industry has steadily encroached: a time-lapse map of projects shows the riddling of the landscape with thousands of oil and gas wells, compounded by industrial-scale logging and coal mining.

“Northeastern B.C is ground zero for industry,” explains Chief Willson. “Last year, there were 21 environmental assessments going on for various coal mines, and 800,000 cubic metres of forest harvested. Part of what our argument is, is that what remains of the valley is important — because it’s all we have left.”

Methyl mercury is naturally released from the aspen trees and other vegetation when it decomposes. Though the first two dams were installed decades ago, contamination from submerged vegetation has bioaccumulated in fish that Indigenous Nations rely upon for food. Larger fish are more likely to be contaminated, exposing people to dangerously high levels of methyl mercury. Adding yet more methyl mercury to the system would compound the problem.

“Site C has sucked in the money that would have otherwise gone to distributed renewable energy projects in this province.”

Every year, a mercury warning is issued for fish in the Williston reservoir, a human-made lake created by the W.A.C. Bennett Dam. Hundreds of tributaries of the Peace River are affected. “What does that mean to a First Nations culture?” Chief Willson asks. “There have never been studies done to determine the impact of methyl mercury contamination on people who consume large quantities of fish. The other issue is all of the mines, which release selenium. So, we have a choice: heavy metals or methyl mercury!”

It’s very difficult to battle cumulative industrial impacts. As the map shows, for Indigenous Nations whose livelihoods and culture are intertwined with those of migratory herds of ruminants and expansive river systems, the piece-by-piece gouging of territory adds up to death by a thousand cuts. Now, Site C presents a macabre opportunity: such a large project makes it easier to prove that treaty rights will be rendered meaningless if the river valley is flooded.

An alternative future: Indigenous power generation

First Nations in B.C. have been leaders in community-level renewable energy projects. From run-of-river projects in Nuu-chaal-nuth territory to solar arrays installed by the Tsilhqot’in Nation, independent power production was beginning to grow legs. But Site C will flood the market with more power than the province needs or can even use, turning B.C. into a net exporter of electricity (at a loss!) and undermining the economic model behind community power.

The availability of alternative energy sources, at much lower cost, throws a wrench into the Site C machine. West Moberly has sat down with the province to talk about how to meet energy needs through alternative means, not just for B.C. but for their own community. But, says Chief Willson, “we were never allowed to have that conversation.”

“Site C has sucked in the money that would have otherwise gone to distributed renewable energy projects in this province,” says Kai Nagata. “The people who control our energy control us. The only way to disrupt that is to build out distributed renewable energy projects.”

“They call it progress,” says Chief Willson. “B.C. bases all their revenues on resource extraction. They are addicted to it. The net result of that is the mess we are in up here. The argument that Site C is needed — it’s not. It’s unsafe, and being unnecessary, it cannot be a justified infringement of the treaty.”

“How much are we supposed to give up?”

Andrea Palframan (she/her; settler of Scottish and Irish ancestry living on unceded Hul’quimin’um speaking-people’s lands) is Director of Communication with RAVEN. RAVEN – Respecting Aboriginal Values and Environmental Needs – provides access to justice for Indigenous Nations who take to the courts to uphold their rights and protect the environment.