"if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen
the side of the oppressor." - Desmond Tutu.

Site C approval: why can't we think outside the neoliberal box? Featured

Kimball Cariou


The Dec. 11 approval by the BC government of the Site C dam is seen by many as a monumental error, and there are already plans for grassroots resistance and ongoing legal and political efforts to block this project. There are also fears that this announcement reflects more than just a difficult decision forced by the previous government's determination to push it past "the point of no return" - it also indicates that Premier Horgan's NDP will refrain from any serious challenge to the underlying fundamentals of decision making in British Columbia, preferring to focus on incremental reforms within the framework of the taxation structure and overall economic priorities set by the defeated Liberals.


No doubt Premier Horgan and his MLAs, many of whom had been sharply critical of Site C, did find this decision heartbreaking. There is considerable truth to their argument that the Liberals had made scrapping the project incredibly difficult. Christy Clark's parting gift to our province was a ten billion dollar boondoggle. But their decision also shows a reluctance to show visionary leadership and to consider other options.


Critics of Site C have emphasized protecting the inherent rights of First Nations peoples, preserving valuable agricultural land and the natural environment, and the need to take account of both the inflated projections of future revenues and the consistently underestimated construction costs. The Dec. 11 decision fails on all these criteria.


For example, the approval of Site C is much worse than a "disappointment" for indigenous peoples, using the Premier's term. It is a blatant violation of the letter and spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation report's recommendations, and also of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Rather than signal a true commitment to these historic documents by cancelling Site C, the provincial government chose to green-light the ongoing colonization of indigenous lands and resources, which are being extracted for the profit of big corporations. This government chose to break their hard-earned trust with First Nations, rather than incur the wrath of the big resource corporations, business groups, and the corporate media.


The government argues that cancelling Site C would force a big increase in Hydro rates, violating the NDP's pledge to make life more affordable for British Columbians. This logic essentially means that the huge and still growing costs of completing Site C will be paid by future generations, sparing the current government the political pain inflicted by higher Hydro bills for the next several years. Well, such calculations are inherent to political decisions, but we are not doing our children and grandchildren any favours by passing down enormous and unnecessary debts, especially if markets for Site C power never reach the levels speculated by its backers.


Another key element in this debate has been "employment," and unfortunately, some have accused the trade union movement of being a key player on the pro-Site C side. In fact, most unions in British Columbia did not take pro-Site C positions, and many public sector labour activists argued strongly that far more jobs could be created by spending $10 billion (or whatever the final amount comes to) on social housing, improving the crumbling urban infrastructure and public transit systems, expanding social programs, and providing adequate funding for schools and hospitals. The point has been made by many progressive economists that politicians and decision-makers are often influenced by the patriarchal myth that only building trades jobs (mainly held by men) are "real," while public sector employment (largely female) is by implication less worthy. To be blunt, the Horgan government appears to have swallowed the assumption that boy jobs are better than girl jobs.


One final point has been ignored by almost everyone in this debate, reflecting the unfortunate fact that neoliberal austerity arguments are deeply embedded into the fabric of almost every public policy discussion in our society.


The truth is that tax policies are not eternal and unalterable. Tax rates are set by elected politicians, and can indeed be changed. Here in British Columbia, as groups like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives have pointed out, the tax break for upper income earners and corporations, granted back in 2001 by the newly-elected Campbell Liberals, has cost the provincial treasury well over $2 billion annually for the past 16 years. Christy Clark tinkered briefly with this tax break when she wanted to appear "populist," and the Horgan government is taking a similar approach; we'll see exactly how much or how little when the next budget is announced early in 2018.


Here's my point: yes, it would cost several billion dollars to cancel Site C. That amount could be covered within a very few years simply by removing half of the annual tax break which the rich and the corporations are still getting in British Columbia. Why has this option never been raised in the arguments around Site C? The project's backers don't go in that direction, of course, since their own interests would be affected. But I find it disappointing that most critics of the dam also fail to raise this option, which would make it possible to begin a decisive shift away from economic policies based on corporate-driven resource extraction megaprojects.


It's time to think outside the box in British Columbia, time to put the needs of people and the environment ahead of the greed of millionaires and corporations. The Site C announcement leaves us firmly inside the box, and that has to change.

Kimball Cariou is the Editor of People's Voice, a social justice activist, and a member of the Radical Desi Editorial Team. 


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