'Point of no return': 2016 the year Site C became real

A year in review of the contentious project

Most eulogies don’t mention hydroelectric projects. But B.C. politics is a strange animal, and Site C is no ordinary dam.

At a celebration of life for former Premier Bill Bennett in January, Premier Christy Clark uttered the words that have come to define the fight over Site C.

“Premier Bennett,” Clark said, addressing the controversial mega project’s original patron. “You got it started and I will get it finished. I will get it past the point of no return.”

Whether Site C reached that point in 2016 is still up for debate.  

Site C is the largest and most expensive infrastructure project in B.C. history—and likely the country’s last megadam. It will produce 1,100 megawatts of electricity and flood more than 80 kilometres of river valley including farmland and sites sacred to area First Nations.

This year, hundreds of workers flocked to Fort St. John for work on the project. Construction was completed on a $470 million worker camp on the rim of the Peace River Valley—boasting a gym, movie theater and licenced pub. A temporary bridge was built to link both sides of the Peace River, allowing for a major ramp up in construction.

With each new contract and dollar spent, Site C inched closer to the point where no government or court can stop it. At least, that’s the bet the Clark government is making.

While construction ramped up, so did opposition. First, it was a protest camp on the banks of the river. For 62 days in the dead of winter, protesters blocked land clearing on the river’s South Bank—living in cold weather shacks and receiving supplies by helicopter, snowmobile and river boat. By year’s end, two of those campers, Ken and Arlene Boon, were effectively expropriated from their family farm to make way for construction.  

Academics and NGOs also lined up to push for a halt to Site C. Each week, it seemed, some new group was demanding the project be stopped for further review—including the Royal Society of Canada, the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative, Amnesty International and the Sierra Club. At the same time, legal challenges from First Nations and landowners continued to wind through the court system, though BC Hydro has prevailed in every decision so far.

Site C jumped back into the national headlines this summer when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau quietly issued fisheries permits allowing construction to continue. It was one of Trudeau’s first major decision on a natural resource project—which some condemned as a violation of his campaign promise to build a “new relationship” between Canada and Indigenous people.  

Going into 2017, the big question is how Site C will factor in May’s provincial election.

B.C. NDP leader John Horgan, the apparent underdog in the race, has promised an independent review. Whether that will yield political dividends is unclear. Public opinion polling on the project, such as it is, has been commissioned by BC Hydro and the environmental news organization Desmog. What people think of Site C seems to hinge on whether they’re told it’s a critical piece of public infrastructure, or a B.C. Liberal vanity project meant to subsidize oil and gas.  

Through all the controversy, the City of Fort St. John has remained neutral. At a meeting on the town’s Site C benefits agreement in February, Mayor Lori Ackerman sounded a note of exhaustion when she described the endless negotiations with BC Hydro.  

"One day, I'll be in a nursing home, rocking back and forth muttering ‘Site C,’” she said. It’s probably the only sentiment the pro- and anti-dam camps can agree on.

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