Late Show: Site C Dam

Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, I rise tonight on adjournment proceedings to pursue a question that I asked in the House on February 23. My question related to actions of the previous government, and I want to stress this. This issue primarily rests with actions taken by the previous government where multitudes of British Columbians, first nations, and conservation groups were looking to the new government to correct a wrong to right an injustice.

I asked about this. In the dying days of the federal election campaign, in fact in the last two weeks of September 2015, 14 federal permits were issued for destruction of riparian zones along the Peace River in pursuit of a British Columbia project referred to as “Site C”. This is a massive hydroelectric project that will flood some of the best farmland in British Columbia and it offends treaty rights. I will give more specifics about Site C later.

In the last two weeks of September 2015, the minister of fisheries and the minister of transportation under the previous government issued 14 permits, some under the Fisheries Act and some under the Navigable Waters Protection Act, to allow construction activities to begin. Further backing up the actions of the previous government, this project, Site C, went to an environmental review. The findings of the joint federal-provincial advisory panel were very damning, no pun intended.

The joint federal-provincial review found that this project would probably cause economic losses to British Columbians. It found that the proponent had not adequately considered alternatives. It found that the proponent fell short of proving any need for the project. It also found that this project would cause permanent damage to the environment, including:

…probable extirpation of three species and would further unbalance the species diversity in the River through the ascendancy of [various]…introduced species, into the reservoir…would act cumulatively to affect fish throughout the remaining, previously undammed sections of the…River…

In other words, it would result in “…significant adverse cumulative effects on fish”.

The panel review also found that this project would cause a net loss of habitat, profound change in the type of character of remaining habitat during construction and operations that would be “…probable, negative, large, irreversible and permanent so long as the Site C Dam remains”.

In relation to first nations rights, which was the main point of my question, the panel review found that the first nations peoples of this area, namely a number of communities within the Treaty 8 First Nations, specifically the Halfway River, Doig River, Prophet River, and West Moberly First Nations, jointly within Treaty 8 protections would suffer permanent losses of cultural rights and treaty rights.

Against this backdrop, the previous cabinet met and decided the economic benefits of this project, which were not found by the panel review, outweighed the permanent environmental damage and permanent damage to treaty rights. This matter remains before the courts.

The treaties were issued by the ministers of fisheries and transportation. Further permits from these ministries will be needed for the project to continue. My question for the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs was this. Will the new government honour its commitments to the first nations and not issue a single additional permit?

Jonathan Wilkinson: Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to address the issue and the question raised by the hon. member for Saanich—Gulf Islands regarding Site C. I appreciate the passion with which she speaks of this matter.

During and subsequent to the recent election campaign, we on this side of the House have clearly stated that we are committed to working collaboratively with Canada’s indigenous peoples to achieve results that will be beneficial for all Canadians.

As members know, a key focus of budget 2016 is on investments related to ensuring that indigenous peoples have similar opportunities and prospects for the future as all Canadians. Our government is committed to building a renewed nation-to-nation relationship with indigenous people that is based on the recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership.

Our government has also made it a priority to review Canada’s environmental assessment processes, with the goal of developing and implementing a federal process that is robust, based on science, protects our rich natural environment, respects the rights of indigenous peoples, and supports and provides certainty for our natural resources sector.

This review, which will be launched later this year, will be conducted in close consultation with indigenous groups. One of its aims will be to enhance consultation, engagement, and the participatory capacity of indigenous peoples in the review of major projects.

With respect to the specific matter of Site C, as the member opposite is aware, the matter is presently before the courts, and as such, it would be inappropriate to comment in great detail. What I can say in answer to the hon. member’s question are a few comments as to how we got here.

In the fall of 2014, the former government approved the project and set legally binding conditions with which the proponent must comply. Permits were issued in the fall of 2015, and the project is now in the construction phase. The project proponent, BC Hydro, is required to meet the conditions that were set out in the decision statement. Environment and Climate Change Canada is actively verifying compliance with the conditions. Going forward, we will continue to engage in discussions with indigenous leaders on how we can work together on issues related to consultation, environmental protection, and natural resource development.

Consistent with this commitment, the minister met recently with Chief Roland Willson and Chief Lynette Tsakoza of the West Moberly and Prophet River Nation first nations to discuss their concerns on the Site C project. During that meeting, she heard their suggestions and their concerns.

In closing, I want to reiterate to the House that this government takes environmental assessment matters very seriously.

In addition, we are firmly committed to renewed nation-to-nation relationships with indigenous peoples based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership.

Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, with no offence to my friend and colleague, the hon. Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, I do believe that the wrong department has responded. My question is specifically in relation to indigenous issues, and it is very clear that the ongoing construction is an ongoing daily violation of treaty rights, which the new Liberal government has sworn to uphold, as the hon member says, on a nation-to-nation basis.

This project underwent a robust evidence-based environmental review because it was reviewed under the legislation that pre-existed the omnibus budget bill, Bill C-38, which wrecked our environmental assessment process and within which the current government finds itself trying to jerry-rig bad processes. This was a fair process. It was a fair federal-provincial review which said that this would cause irrevocable damage, and cabinet overturned that good advice. The current cabinet can overturn that bad decision, stop the project, and respect the rights of first nations.

Jonathan Wilkinson: Mr. Speaker, I have outlined some of the key background elements of this project, including those that occurred before our government came to power. However, as this matter is before the courts, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further on the specific case.

I would say that our government is fully committed to renewing nation-to-nation relationships with Canada’s indigenous peoples. The crown will execute its consultation and accommodation obligations in accordance with its common constitutional and international human rights obligations, including aboriginal and treaty rights.