How Site C is the ultimate test of BC Hydro’s influence

POWER TO YOU | The John Hart Generating Station is cited as a case study in positive community engagement near Campbell River

BC Hydro ranks No. 1 in our survey of B.C.’s most influential brands and remains one of the province’s most loved brands. The controversial Site C dam, however, represents one of the biggest tests of that influence in over 50 years of operation

On a cold day in late October, protestors came out to picket at the gates of the biggest construction site in the province: the $9-billion Site C dam. Downstream, a group of Treaty 8 First Nations members set up camp on a river flat that was set to be clear-cut and submerged in 200 feet of water; as of early December, the protestors were still there. “If they try to log that flat, they’re going to run into those people,” says Ken Boon, a Peace River Valley homesteader who, as president of the local landowners association, helped organize the protest. 
In this year’s Ipsos/BCBusiness survey of the province’s most influential brands, BC Hydro came out on top—thanks in large part to high scores on questions of trust and responsibility. To maintain its top ranking, B.C.’s biggest utility company goes far beyond the rubber stamp of government approval when it embarks on dam upgrades, new transmission lines or efficiency programs, and attempts to achieve a social licence to build. But when Christy Clark’s cabinet green-lit the Site C dam last July, it set up Hydro for one of its biggest tests of influence to date. 
Boon and many others believe that Site C is proceeding without proper review and without social licence. Social licence, however, is as hard to define as it is to achieve. The basic idea is that project concerns—over dams, mines and real estate developments—have crept outside of environmental assessment and government approvals, and that tackling those concerns means going above and beyond. In a 2012 paper for the Canada West Foundation, researchers Robert Roach and Barry Worbets described the challenge of achieving social licence in B.C. as “a wide range of stakeholders, heated rhetoric, competing scientific claims, incomplete information and responses that require broad social change and/or significant economic costs.” 

Hydro, because it is owned by the people of British Columbia, has tried to set the gold standard for consultation and community engagement—hiring and training a local workforce and creating institutional capacity in communities across the province. But it’s not something that the crown corporation has always been good at. In the 1960s and ’70s, Hydro built a series of massive dams along the upper Peace and the Columbia River, flooding entire river valleys with their reservoirs. While these projects created the power infrastructure that to this day generates around half of B.C.’s electricity, they also resulted in mass displacement; those displaced in the north included the Sekani First Nations, who wouldn’t receive recognition or compensation until 1977—nearly two decades after the W.A.C. Bennett dam was completed. 

In response to the environmental movement of the ’70s and ’80s—and then the emerging body of treaty law—BC Hydro became a lot more responsible. “Social licence fundamentally comes down to that basic level of trust that individuals have that your company is making decisions based on the best interest of the people who rely on it and can be impacted by it,” says Jessica McDonald, CEO of BC Hydro, who started working on the Site C file during her days as one of Gordon Campbell’s deputy ministers. 

When Site C consultation began in 2007, Hydro started with the mandate to “foster a two-way dialogue between BC Hydro and Peace region residents, businesses, property owners, communities and Aboriginal groups to ensure we are aware of local interests, issues and concerns.” And the corporation has tried to address those concerns. It has set up a $20-million fund to compensate municipalities for lost tax revenues from the 31,000 square kilometres of prime farmland that will be flooded. Hydro has also held consultations with First Nations groups—at least two of which stand to lose ancestral lands and hunting territory—that the B.C. Supreme Court, in a recent ruling, described as “extensive and conducted in good faith.”

For Ken Boon, who will lose part of his homestead to Site C—including a farmhouse built by his wife’s grand-father—it’s the intangibles that can’t be compensated for. “It’s tough for the people who have lived here a long time or plan to live here a long time. There are real roots here.”