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Work continues on the banks of the Peace River. Crews are removing unstable clay to prepare the valley walls to hold the mega dam in place. Recent experiences with the federal government have left Prophet River First Nation member Helen Knott wary of government promises.

So while she and other Indigenous people are excited about NDP provincial government commitments to adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, words are not enough. And the Site C dam in northeastern B.C., they say, will be the government’s first test of its commitment.

“The vocalization that they’ll adhere to UNDRIP is a start, but it’s about actions,” Knott says. “And Site C is the place to start with it, because it’s the issue that’s out front and in everybody’s faces.”

Prophet River is one of two Treaty 8 First Nations who have steadfastly opposed the dam.

UNDRIP calls for free, prior and informed consent from Indigenous peoples on issues and projects that affect them. It also protects their right to strengthen their distinct spiritual relationship with territorial lands and water.

The provincial government repeated its commitment to adopt UNDRIP at the B.C. cabinet and First Nations leaders gathering earlier this month. It was also included in the mandate letters to each ministry, including to the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, which is responsible for the massive and controversial Site C dam project.

“The federal government left a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth,” Knott says. “So faith now and trust now is earned by action, rather than given at face value. Here at the provincial level, they have a second chance to show that, ‘Yeah we are committed to reconciliation, and yes we are going to adhere to UNDRIP.’ That calls for free prior and informed consent which hasn’t happened within Treaty 8 territory.”

Free, prior and informed consent recognizes Indigenous peoples as distinct groups with a right to self-determination and self-government, and gives them the power to say no.

The UNDRIP approach is fundamentally different from how Canada’s system of consultation works, and from how consultation on Site C was managed . Even though some First Nations in the area signed impact benefit agreements, they were never asked to consent to the significant build on their territory. First Nations who said no were essentially ignored in consultation, they say.

“If communities refused to meet with BC Hydro, it was shown that BC Hydro did their due diligence,” Knott says. “They got that check mark, and it looked bad on the community. But if the communities did consult then it was like, ‘OK, what’s the problem? They consulted you.’ It didn’t matter whether or not you said no, I don’t want this.”

She adds: “These consultation sessions shapeshift into information sessions, which doesn’t hold that spirit of free, prior and informed consent.” BC Hydro crews have been clearing the way to realign Highway 29 because the reservoir will flood parts of the current road. Not far off the highway is a campsite where gatherings are often held. The sweat lodge there had trees all around. Crews left the lodge, but logged the trees. ‘That was a sight to see. To walk down there to see the lodge that you prayed in and then having trees that were there all cut down all around it,’ Helen Knott says. ‘That doesn’t look like having respect.’ UNDRIP also recognizes the right to “maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship” with traditional lands and water. The valley in the flood zone holds thousands of years of spiritual and cultural history. Being by the river is part of a spiritual […]

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