BALDREY: Site C an indicator of decisions to come?

It was announced with little fanfare by BC Hydro, but the federal government’s decision last week to grant two key permits for the Site C dam project may have major implications for all kinds of major resource developments across the country.

The decision came amidst quiet grumbling among the provinces over the new federal government’s snail’s pace when it comes to making decisions on difficult issues.

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It’s easy for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to make appearances at things like the Pride Parade or hang out with U.S. President Barack Obama, but it’s another thing entirely when it comes to making the call on something that will cause you political grief no matter which way you go.

Trudeau is already feeling a backlash from environmentalists and some First Nations, who are furious he has given the green light to a project they vehemently oppose. Words like “betrayal” and “cowardly” are being bandied about by groups who apparently had convinced themselves that Trudeau was going to shut down any economic development that had even the slightest amount of opposition from some First Nations.

But as I pointed out in January, those hoping Trudeau would kibosh the Site C dam were dreaming in Technicolor. Such a move would create a potential constitutional crisis, and cause irreparable damage to the relationship between the feds and the B.C. government, which views the Site C dam as the centerpiece of its economic development platform.

The more realistic concern regarding the Site C dam was how long Trudeau was going to wait before moving forward with his backing of it. His government’s foot-dragging when it came to making a decision was causing considerable nervousness at BC Hydro because of the financial implications of a non-decision.

BC Hydro has come to the point where it needs to begin the process of diverting the river and thereby disrupt local fisheries, which requires federal approval under the Fisheries Act and the Navigation Protection Act.

The permit approvals came through at literally the 11th hour. Any further delay would have resulted in a high number of temporary layoffs and financial penalties in the millions of dollars.

But now work can proceed, and the only hope for opponents of the dam resides in court, where they have been demonstrably unsuccessful at every turn. Federal court judges have concluded BC Hydro has met the test for proper consultations with First Nations affected by Site C, and indeed some of those bands have signed benefits with BC Hydro and now have a vested interest in seeing the dam completed.

In fact, aside from it marking the first time the Trudeau government has approved permits for any resource development since it came to power, the Site C decision is pivotal precisely because it involves First Nations’ interests, both pro and con.

A series of court decisions over decades have greatly strengthened the hand of First Nations when it comes to determining land use decisions, particularly in B.C. where there are relatively few treaties.

But while First Nations’ rights are no doubt stronger, how deeply they are entrenched when compared to other interests, remains unclear. Many observers think while First Nations don’t have an automatic veto over some land use decisions, they have a de facto political veto.

The eventual final court decision on First Nations’ challenges to Site C may well define further the answer to this question.

In the meantime, does the Trudeau government’s decision to green light Site C signal it is willing to do so on other major projects – the Kinder Morgan and Energy East pipelines, an LNG industry, port developments, mining – that have a mixed bag when it comes to support or opposition from various First Nations?

The pro-development side is surely rejoicing at the Trudeau government’s backing of the Site C dam project. It pushes some of the other major projects in this country closer to the building stage, and off the planning board where they’ve been stuck for so long.

Whether they can remain in the building stage amid court challenges, primarily by some First Nations, is an open question however.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.

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