VICTORIA—The woman in charge of getting the massive Site C hydroelectric dam built in British Columbia’s northeast said she’s open to more talking and listening to break down a wall of opposition by First Nations.
BC Hydro president and CEO Jessica McDonald said she has learned from experience that the best way to get past the answer ‘No’ is to keep talking.
“It’s by listening and by having genuine and meaningful conversations,” she told The Canadian Press in an interview. “At the end of the day it’s about communication and it’s about that we are listening and really understanding and really being open and trying to find solutions that address the very unique concerns that each community will have.”
But First Nations leaders say the province’s approval of the $8.8-billion project in December 2014 means the time for talk is over and the government’s idea of consultation was telling them that the massive dam will be built.
Construction of the project on the Peace River is set to start this summer.
It will flood agricultural land, First Nations burial and archeological sites and destroy hunting, fishing and spiritual areas.
Environmental groups, ranchers and First Nations have vowed to fight Site C, with some First Nations taking their opposition to the Supreme Court of Canada for a judicial review.
But McDonald, who was appointed last July to head Crown-owned BC Hydro, said the utility’s commitment to having open conversations with each of the First Nations communities involved is as strong as ever.
McDonald said she discovered as a deputy minister in former premier Gordon Campbell’s government that perceptions of deep divisions between aboriginals and non-aboriginals can be bridged just by continuing to talk.
She played a major role in talks between the government and aboriginal leaders toward building what became known as a new relationship and proposed reconciliation legislation that was never introduced.
“The biggest observation I had, and it came very early on, is that we hadn’t been talking enough,” she said. “We built up a lot of assumptions where the issues were and why we might be at odds on various issues. There were just so many assumptions that were being carried that we sort of missed the opportunity to have the conversation.”
Grand chief Ed John, who leads the First Nations Summit that speaks on behalf of First Nations involved in treaty negotiations in B.C., said he was part of the new relationship talks.
He said McDonald likely acquired a deeper understanding of aboriginal views of land rights and ownership.
“If anyone, she would understand what we were talking about,” he said. “She became the point person in the discussions around aboriginal rights and title and its historical context.”
John said he would not advise McDonald on how BC Hydro should proceed with First Nations in the wake of pending legal challenges of Site C.
“They will have a big hill to climb, I think BC Hydro does,” he said. “It’s going to be rife with challenges.”
West Moberly First Nations chief Roland Willson said he believes the fix was in from the start on the dam and no amount of talking would divert the government from its goal to build.
“Everything that they’ve done, all their policies, their legislation, every decision they’ve made they made so there’s only one outcome and that was Site C,” he said. “They ignored everything we put on the table. There was never an opportunity to change Site C.”
Willson said his Fort St. John, B.C.-area First Nation and three others have launched a supreme court application for a judicial review of the Site C decision.
Willson said his First Nation isn’t opposed to energy development, noting the West Moberly proposed gas-fired plants to produce energy, but those plans were rejected in favour of Site C.
“We’re going to court and if we can get the (court) to see our side of it, Site C is dead in the water and the province and the federal government are going to have to come back and talk to us again,” he said.
McDonald said BC Hydro has been working closely with First Nations for eight years on the Site C project.
While she said she’s not willing to discuss private talks, they generally revolve around local benefits versus concerns or issues about the project.
The dam, the third on the Peace River, would flood an 83-kilometre stretch of valley near Fort St. John.
The project has been part of B.C.’s long-range energy options since 1958 and would produce 1,100 megawatts of capacity every year, enough to power about 450,000 homes, according to BC Hydro.