Silence of the dams: International condemnation, Canadian indifference

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Helen Knott of West Moberly First Nation holds up contrasting images of Peace River, before and after dam construction began, in 2016. Image: Chelsea Nash/Used with permission

This is part three in a three-part series entitled "The silence of the dams: Canada's faux-green genocide." Read part one here and part two here

As Canada continues to push ahead with plans to imprison more rivers and despoil Indigenous territories with megadams like those at Muskrat Falls and Keeyask, it has not gone without notice on an international level.

Indeed, the United Nations has repeatedly called Canada on the carpet for environmental racism, especially in British Columbia, where a massive dam on the Peace River has drawn resistance for years.

It was even a major issue in the election that brought the B.C. NDP back to power in 2017. But B.C. Premier John Horgan is continuing with similarly disastrous plans at Site C, a megadam which the United Nations insists should be stopped due to its violation of Indigenous rights. When Horgan announced that B.C. would forge ahead despite massive opposition and the failure to secure the consent of Indigenous peoples, he famously declared:

"When it comes to reconciliation and working with Indigenous leadership, look, there has been over 150 years of disappointment in B.C.. I'm not the first person to stand before you and disappoint Indigenous people."

Hence, Horgan fell back on the Manitoba Hydro strategy of acknowledging the harm he was committing to because, well, that's always been the way, so one more attack on Indigenous rights shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.

Earlier this year, West Moberly First Nations Chief Roland Wilson wrote to Horgan, demanding a halt to Site C construction and calling for the NDP to "abandon the pretext that the Site C dam can be constructed and operated without infringing" the nation's treaty rights. Wilson pointed out that Site C, like Muskrat Falls, faces major geotechnical issues, is wholly unnecessary, and violates Treaty 8, which is supposed to be in effect "as long as the river flows."

Wilson pointed out that at the time of the treaty being signed:

"It would have been incomprehensible that the agreement would later be argued to authorize the blockage of the Peace River with a series of three massive dams and sprawling reservoirs…the Indigenous treaty partners would not, could not, and did not, agree to the destruction of their lands."

If Site C goes ahead, it will flood 5,500 hectares of land, desecrate sacred sites, destroy ancient forests, disrupt wetlands, contaminate land-based medicines and poison fish with methylmercury. As Wilson mentioned, this will compound the damage wrought by two previous dams upstream. Needless to say, this does not square with the government's 2019 passing of legislation promising to respect the core principles of UNDRIP, which the B.C. NDP has simultaneously celebrated and refused to respect ever since.

In Quebec, the Innu First Nation of Pessamit, the Atkamekw First Nation of Wemotaci and the Anishnabek First Nation of Pikogan went on record last summer in opposition to the New England Clean Energy Connect Project, another Orwellian-named initiative that plans to profit from the megadam power that relies on what the three Nations point out is a massive infrastructure of "33 production structures, 130 dams and dikes, 10,400 square km of reservoirs, and tens of thousands of transmission, distribution and road lines [that] have been illegally installed on our lands and waters."

The First Nations have never been compensated for Hydro-Quebec's occupation, which "has destroyed traditional family units and upended the socio-economic stability" of their communities.

While B.C., Quebec and Labrador are traditionally viewed as the major hydropower players, protests against the Burleigh Falls dam in Ontario erupted earlier this year as well. As always, at the heart of protests was the utter failure to properly consult, in this case with the Kawartha Nishnawbe. In a petition with over 30,000 supporters, they point out that when Burleigh Falls dam was first built in 1912, it resulted in the forcible relocation of Kawartha Nishnawbe's people. They have never "been compensated for the theft of our land and we have been treated as nothing more than 'squatters' in our own land ever since."

Despite numerous court rulings recognizing that the Kawartha Nishnawbe is a Mississauga community with Treaty rights under the Treaty of 1818, "Canada has ignored these rulings and continued to act as if Kawartha Nishnawbe does not exist."

Back in Manitoba, water defender Angela Levasseur, from O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation (aka South Indian Lake), has been tirelessly campaigning to stop Manitoba Hydro from further flooding her community. She too began a well-publicized petition that seeks to prevent the utility from winning what she names a "licence to destroy," and is urging the federal government to intervene given the province's failure to engage in any respectful dialogue, much less seek free, prior and informed consent.

But Canada's largest federal political parties refuse to touch the megadam issue.

While the Conservatives were behind the initial push for Muskrat Falls, the Liberals are more than willing to sacrifice Indigenous rights in the mistaken belief that such dams will help them meet climate change targets. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has refused to come out from a self-imposed cone of silence on Muskrat Falls and Site C (perhaps to placate the B.C. NDP), and has historically been missing in action on Manitoba Hydro violations as well (again, perhaps a nod to his provincial NDP counterparts, who approved Keeyask). Singh rightfully embraced the calls for justice at Grassy Narrows, where a half century of mercury contamination has left profound and lethal effects, but he won't touch the very same issue where the contamination is getting underway but easily preventable.

With political parties unwilling to address the dangers posed by megadams, it will fall as always to the Indigenous front-line defenders who are refusing to allow further encroachments on and destruction of their territories, as well as their allies, to expose the faux-green genocide being undertaken so people can think that driving electric cars and running their laptops on non-fossil fuel electric power are somehow contributing to a better world.

As governments attempt to pit green energy advocates against Indigenous peoples, the issue is not an either/or binary.

Rather, we need a more nuanced discussion about the kind of society we need to create in order to fully honour and respect Indigenous rights while ensuring that we do not continue to engage in the kind of megaproject fiascos that ultimately replicate the very colonial violence to the earth that requires us to consider alternative energy sources in the first place.  

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. "national security" profiling for many years.

Image: Chelsea Nash/Used with permission

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