VANCOUVER – First Nations protesting the construction of the $9-billion Site C dam in northeastern British Columbia are preparing for their own arrests while they implore Prime Minister Justin Trudeau intervene to stop the hydroelectric project.
Helen Knott of the Prophet River First Nation said in an interview from the protest site that she and six other demonstrators are camped at Rocky Mountain Fort, the former site of a North West Company fur-trading post established in 1794, near Fort St. John.
RCMP said they arrested three protesters on Wednesday who had been blocking an access road needed by BC Hydro crews to begin work on the dam, the third on the Peace River. The dam will create an 83-kilometre-long reservoir and flood the area where the protesters are camping.
BC Hydro and Power Authority have issued an eviction notice, warning protesters that all contents of the camp set up on Dec. 31 will be removed and delivered to the RCMP.
Knott said the protesters are hunkering down while weathering snow and temperatures as low as -20 C, awaiting the possibility of arrest.
“It’s not necessarily anybody goes into it with that idea, like, yeah, we’re going to be arrested, right? It’s that, yeah, we’re committed to saving this tract of land and to, you know, actively use our treaty rights here,” she said.
Knott said she would rather not be arrested but is willing to be at the camp and take a stand on the issue.
Site C spokesman David Conway said the protest is affecting a small clearing area but all other construction work on the project continues. Contractors had been prepared to log the area where protesters are camped.
The utility hopes to resolve the situation through ongoing discussions with protesters and local authorities in order to resume construction, he said.
“BC Hydro respects the right of all individuals to peacefully protest and express their opinions about Site C in a safe and lawful manner,” he said in an email. “Our immediate concern is to ensure the safety of both Site C workers and the protesters.”
Several First Nations and local residents have filed legal challenges over the dam, raising concerns about flooding and the impact the lake will create.
Art Napoleon of the Saulteau First Nation said in a phone interview from Victoria that the lake will flood the historic site and other sacred areas.
“That whole area was a culturally significant area for us, for hunting, trapping, fishing, gathering, a lot of history, all of our history, so that’s our cultural institution and it’s being raped, and it’s still not enough,” he said, adding he hopes Trudeau can get involved.
“Well, I don’t know what exactly he can do but it’s worth a shot, isn’t it?” said Napoleon.
The protest camp is in a remote area. Knott said once protesters leave the main highway, they must drive on rough, secondary roads for 90 minutes to two hours before making another seven-kilometre trip by foot or snowmobile.
The timber needs to be cleared before birds move in for nesting in the spring, and provincial Energy Minister Bill Bennett said the delay would make the project more expensive.
“Government wants to be respectful of people’s right to express themselves and their right to protest. We accept that,” Bennett said in an interview. “We have to balance that with the right of the BC Hydro ratepayers to expect that this project would get built on time and budget.”
Bennett added that government agrees construction should proceed despite outstanding court cases. He said those in opposition appear to be using the legal system as a stalling tactic, and also noted the courts have mostly sided with the utility.
Opponents have been stating their case for a long time, but “the fact of the matter is the majority of people in the province don’t agree with them,” Bennett said.
About 75 per cent of the 600 workers currently on the site are from B.C., Bennett added.
BC Hydro announced in December it would spend $1.75 billion to build the earthen dam, foundation, two diversion tunnels and spillways.