Lawsuit still 'hanging over' former Site C protest campers

BC Hydro denies SLAPP suit claims

Nearly three months have passed since Site C opponents packed up their camp at the historic Rocky Mountain Fort site on the banks of the Peace River, which blocked construction on the controversial dam for 62 days.

While the camp has gone away, BC Hydro’s civil suit against six of the campers hasn’t.

Two of those campers say the Crown corporation's lawsuit, which led to an injunction to remove the camp in February, is still on the books and doesn't appear to be going anywhere.

Critics of the project have said the court action smacks of a SLAPP suit—a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. BC Hydro denies the claim, saying it supports protest against the dam that doesn't disrupt construction.  

Ken Boon, a Peace Valley farmer and prominent dam critic, said BC Hydro CEO Jessica McDonald visited his home in Bear Flats on a recent trip to Fort St. John.

"That was one of the topics that came up, that civil suit," he said in an interview. "We asked if BC Hydro would consider dropping that civil suit, because the conditions in that civil suit are over. It seems to me like the civil suit should be null and void."

Boon stressed that BC Hydro took no issue with their continued advocacy against the dam—so long as it doesn’t physically impede construction.

He said McDonald asked if they would consider "signing a document…stating something to the effect that we wouldn’t do any further action.” While he said he didn't speak for the other defendants named in the suit, "there’s no real interest from anybody that we spoke to to sign some kind of document just to make that civil suit go away."

The South Bank of the Peace River, where the Rocky Mountain Fort camp stood for 60 days (at right). The area has since been cleared for dam construction. - File

It remains to be seen how the suit will impact future protests against the dam.

BC Hydro could pursue damages through the lawsuit, Boon said. "They could potentially squish anyone of us like a bug and we’d be done. That just doesn’t seem right for (a Crown corporation) to be behaving in that way," he said.

Helen Knott, another camper named in the civil case, said the lawsuit is "kind of hanging over everyone" involved in the protest.

"In the initial claim, there were damages in that, but they haven’t moved forward on anything," she said, adding it "feels like it’s a preventative measure."  

Jason Gratl, who represented the six Site C defendants in the injunction hearing, said injunctions granted on a temporary basis tend to have lasting impacts.

“Practically speaking, they turn out to be permanent injunctions because neither the project proponent nor the defendant protesters have any incentive to take the civil action through to trial,” he said in an interview.

“It just stays there,” he added, because defendants typically don’t have the funds to fight the matter in court, while “the cost of litigation for the plaintiffs far exceeds the anticipated reward.”

Site C spokesperson Dave Conway disputed the claim that BC Hydro is involved in a SLAPP suit.

"Recent articles confuse lawful and peaceful protest with the physical blockade of construction work," he wrote in an email. "BC Hydro repeatedly asked the protesters to allow the construction work to continue, but they refused. We were left with no choice but to commence a civil claim and apply to the court for an injunction."

He said BC Hydro has established a "safe protest zone" near the entrance to the dam site.

"BC Hydro understands that some individuals have strong opinions on Site C and we fully respect the rights of those individuals to express their views," he said. "While we would prefer not to go to court, we also have an obligation to our customers to deliver this important public project on time and on budget."

Site C, the third dam on the Peace River, will flood around 83-kilometres of river valley and generate 1,100 megawatts of power.

Campers at the Rocky Mountain Fort—the site of a former fur trade post—said they were blocking construction until the outcome of two First Nations lawsuits aimed at stopping the dam.

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Notice of Civil Claim against Site C protest camp by Jonny Wakefield

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