David Suzuki: What will Gordon Campbell's environmental legacy be?


One of Canada’s longest-serving politicians, Gordon Campbell, recently stepped down as leader of the B.C. Liberal Party and premier of British Columbia. Mr. Campbell’s long tenure as premier was fraught with contradictions when it came to the environment.

He brought in an ambitious plan to tackle climate change, including mandatory targets for reducing greenhouse gases, a more energy- efficient building code and North America’s strongest carbon tax, for which he received widespread support from many climate scientists, environmentalists and economists. Putting a price on the carbon pollution that causes global warming is one of the most effective tools a government can employ to bring greenhouse gas emissions down quickly.


Despite B.C.’s leadership on the carbon tax, Premier Campbell’s government also committed more than $1 billion in subsidies to oil and gas companies and aggressively pushed mega-energy projects that are at odds with the need to shift B.C. from costly and environmentally damaging forms of energy to low-impact renewable power generation.


Perhaps no mega-energy plan has generated as much controversy as resurrecting the dam proposal for Site C on the Peace River. During his last few months as premier, Mr. Campbell announced that the government will move ahead with the assessment stage for the massive $6.6 billion hydroelectric dam, near the town of Fort St. John in northeast B.C.


This dam would be the third major hydro development on one of B.C.’s most picturesque waterways. The Peace River flows for about 2,000 kilometres from the Rocky Mountain alpine in the west, then northeast across Alberta, eventually joining the Athabasca- Mackenzie watershed on its way to the Arctic Ocean. The dam would flood the highly productive lower Peace Valley.


The lower Peace River and its associated ecosystems support a diverse range of wildlife, including threatened populations of bull trout, grizzly bears, wolverines and countless other plants and animals. Because of its fertile soils, moderate climate and accessible terrain, the bottomlands along its banks and gentle valley slopes have supported farming families for more than a century. These farmers grow forage, cereal and oilseed crops, as well as raising cattle and growing market gardens.


When Premier Campbell announced his plans, he did so at a news conference in front of an earlier hydro-development project, the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, a few kilometres upstream from the Site C dam location. With the W.A.C. Bennett Dam and its massive reservoir as his backdrop, the premier argued that the proposed Site C dam would provide a clean and renewable source of energy. But to First Nations and other local people whose traditional lands and farms were flooded and livelihoods destroyed by the W.A.C. Bennett Dam in the 1960s, the prospect of yet another dam that will flood long sections of the Peace River Valley, destroying farms and forest, is unacceptable.


The 60-metre-tall Site C dam is designed to produce 900 megawatts a year, enough electricity to power 400,000 homes. Although it will generate power with a far lower greenhouse gas footprint than an energy source such as coal, the project, according to opponents, is not needed to meet B.C.’s energy demands and will result in unacceptably high ecological and social costs—most notably the destruction of thousands of hectares of ungulate winter range and important hunting, trapping and fishing grounds; the loss of precious farmland; and the possible contamination of waters and wildlife with toxic mercury.


In September, First Nations elders, youth and elected officials, along with non-native farmers and ranchers, travelled 1,300 kilometres from the Peace Valley to Victoria to present the premier with a historic declaration opposing the dam. The document was signed by 23 First Nations from across B.C., Alberta and the Northwest Territories.


The declaration was wrapped in a traditional birch bark container, from trees growing in the flood zone of the proposed dam. And while neither Premier Campbell nor anyone from his government would meet with the delegation to accept their declaration, it was later formally introduced into the legislature by the NDP opposition.


Premier Campbell leaves office with a growing movement against the dam that he championed. Many British Columbians believe that the environmental costs associated with big hydro are just too high and that the next premier of B.C. must make lower- impact renewable energy sources—like solar, wind, geothermal and other technologies—the basis of our energy future.


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