Rafe: Site C Dam shows how broken our democracy is

BC First Nations Chiefs Roland Wilson, Liz Logan and Stewart Phillip took their anti-Site C message to Ottawa – to no avail (Liz Logan/ Twitter)

This week I said I would talk about Site C but little did I know what I had taken on. I spent nearly a day and a half with stuff that wouldn’t likely be in the article but knew I needed to read.

After devouring an enormous pile of material which I’d rather not have, I came to the firm conclusion that Site C is a terrible idea, founded on a professed need for energy in BC based upon highly suspect, self-serving research by Hydro, which has a long history of deliberately overestimating electrical demand and with no reasonably certain market except a very dubious LNG industry. The price tag, likely well in excess of $10 billion, will guarantee the bankruptcy of BC Hydro, which I suspect was the plan all along.

The whole story

It’s interesting and important to note a March, 2016 article by Justine Hunter in the Globe and Mail:

[quote]The author of a report the B.C. government used as a green light to proceed with the $8.8-billion Site C dam says there are better alternatives, but his review panel was not permitted to look at other solutions to future demand for more electricity.

In fact, Harry Swain, an associate fellow at the University of Victoria, whose May, 2014, report on the dam was viewed as a “mostly positive” study that justified the government’s decision to proceed, says British Columbia could meet its future energy needs at a lower cost with the stroke of a pen by taking back the power available under the Columbia River Treaty.

“In the report, we held back a lot of stuff because we were not allowed to talk about policy,” he said in an interview this week. “It wasn’t the whole story.”[/quote]

In short, in typical Christy Clark style, the report upon which the government bases its support of Site C, according to the Chairman of the Joint Review Panel that produced it, “wasn’t the whole story”.

Wow!  Even with this incompetent lot, that truly takes the breath away. 10 Billion bucks to be spent based on an incomplete assessment of the facts as honestly admitted by the Chair of the Committee!

Knowing that MLAs don’t have the guts to do anything about this, I realize that the real question is the same as that which I talked about recently with the Kinder Morgan pipeline. How was the decision to be made?

Democratic deficiency

Our version of a parliamentary system is totally unsuited to deal with a large controversy.

If you were to say that to someone ignorant of political philosophy, let’s say Christy Clark, she would respond, “Well we had an election in 2013, we got a majority and therefore we make the decision.” In fact, that’s just what her slightly less than cerebral colleague, Bill Bennett said.

That ignores a number of factors, not the least of which is that elections, including the one in 2013, are seldom over one controversy. They are held to elect a government, not decide a single issue which may not be well canvassed in the election campaign and indeed may not yet have become a recognized issue.

Secondly, under our system, we elect people of various backgrounds but who all have one thing in common – they will all, in every matter, do as they are bloody well told.

There is still this myth that great discussions take place in Caucus, which opinions the Minister responsible uses as the basis of his legislation. As the Duke of Wellington said when a man accosted him with “Mr. Robinson, I believe”.

“If you believe that, you’ll believe anything!”

These days, caucus is rarely even told about government policy, much less consulted. What they read is the same mindless, self-serving shit they mail out to you at public expense.

Kinder Morgan: A top-down decision

Let’s examine the federal government decision to approve Kinder Morgan, a flashpoint issue in BC the likes of which I have never seen before. It was publicly denounced by half a dozen Liberal backbenchers in BC, all of whom can now forget about promotion. The decision was made by Cabinet in accordance with orders from the Prime Minister.

Now, suppose you were vehemently opposed to Kinder Morgan and it so happened your MP was a Liberal. Let’s say that you know him/her very well, are a good supporter and even gave them money. Naturally, you go to this MP and advise them that you believe strongly that Kinder Morgan is a terrible idea, not only for the constituency but the whole province, and that you would be furious if the MP didn’t make that clear. Furthermore, you could say with accuracy that the vast majority of the constituency felt the same way.

What do you think would happen?

I can tell you what would happen: Nothing! Two times the square root of sweet Fanny Adams.

Now that is a democracy? That is the people having a say in the policies by which they will be governed?

There is an obvious solution to this problem – on major issues, submit the question to the people by way of referendum. I think I can feel the shivering out there as these words are being read. We don’t use referenda because this is a parliamentary democracy.

Well, that takes us back to where we started – our parliamentary democracy in practice denies individual voters any role in decision making for controversial issues like Site C or Kinder Morgan. Do we all just say “who cares?” and amble off to the pub for a beer?

The real reason we don’t use referenda more often is that the “elite” are afraid that the rabble won’t do what they’re told.

A lesson from Charlottetown

One only need to look at the proposed changes to how we elect MPs in Canada to see how vigorously – and illogically – the “elite” fight the idea of letting the people decide how they want to perform their democratic right to vote!

Isn’t that absurd when you think about it?

The most glaring example of the nations ignoramuses thwarting the wise decisions of the “elite” came with the Charlottetown Accord referendum in 1992 when the Rabble told “those who know best” to get stuffed and, in fact, in British Columbia, by 67.9%.

There were a number of us in BC who threw everything into the fight on the “No” side, including constitutional lawyers, professors of constitutional law, members of the British Columbia Court of Appeal, probably Canada’s most experienced constitutional lawyer and so on – yet the answer from the “higher purpose persons” (the late Denny Boyd’s wonderful phrase) was that these stupid bovine masses, following hypnotic broadcasters, destroyed the country.

Well, even though the “elite”, from the Prime Minister down, predicted that the country would fall to pieces if Charlottetown didn’t prevail, that not only did not happen but, I would argue, the county was saved. In due course, Quebec realized it would have to be like all other provinces if it wanted the benefits of being part of the nation and, although the last separation vote was close, the separatists lost and it also became clear that the changing population was going to make their case harder and harder to make.

The voter should be boss

I think the killing argument is simply this: If the principle is that decisions in our democracy will be made by ordinary people voting for their representatives, how can they be smart enough to elect good representatives but too stupid to give instructions as to what they want to happen?

No, don’t let me mislead you. I do not say that ultimate wisdom comes from referenda but I do say neither does it come from electing ordinary people to Parliament or from benevolent despots, for that matter. Nor do I support government by referendum; I support representative government where the voter is boss, not the Prime Minister, and, on major issues, by referendum.

I would argue from the Charlottetown experience that people in a referendum on a serious issue inform themselves far better than they are ever informed in an ordinary general election. With Charlottetown, it was remarkable what information the public demanded, what they observed on their own, the questions they asked of expert guests on my show and what they learned and learned so well.

What we really get down to is that the “elite”, whose motivation is not reaching an appropriate decision that’s beneficial to all, rather a resolution that suits their personal interests or those of their backers, don’t like it when the people they normally control in parliament or the legislature are not there to do what they’re told.

Yes, these are harsh words and betray a hearty mistrust of the system under which we govern ourselves. I say them by reason of a lifetime experience watching, participating and seeing just how willing we are to fool ourselves, rather than attempt any sort of change. We are masters of allowing perfection to be the enemy of improvement.

I am not so naïve as to think there is a perfect system available. What I do know, and I’m sure most people realize, is if you are never prepared to change, you will always have the same lousy situation.

Over the festive season I suggest you sit down with your mate or a good friend, with a glass of good BC wine and ask yourselves, “Do I really have a say, however minor, in the decisions that are made by the legislature or Parliament? The decisions on which my life is directed?”

If the answer is negative, you know that the big kids don’t want the rules to change – does that mean that you passively accept your fate?

Or do you go to work as freedom loving people always have when the “elite” run the citizen’s life from the comfort of their favourite chair at the Club?


About Rafe Mair

Rafe Mair, LL.B, LL.D (Hon) a B.C. MLA 1975 to 1981, was Minister of Environment from late 1978 through 1979. In 1981 he left politics for Talk Radio becoming recognized as one of B.C.'s pre-eminent journalists. An avid fly fisherman, he took a special interest in Atlantic salmon farms and private power projects as environmental calamities and became a powerful voice in opposition to them. Rafe is the co-founder of The Common Sense Canadian and writes a regular blog at

30 thoughts on “Rafe: Site C Dam shows how broken our democracy is

  1. “The voter should be boss” Excellent piece Rafe ! Something that wasn’t said is that we need to change the BC voting system that gives these yahoo’s the power over everything. All on a minimum of votes. How can it be a legitimate democracy when the minority controls the majority. I’m sick of my vote being wasted. ‘ The voter should be boss ‘ Nice. Bullseye.

    Let’s change our voting system to a proportional one, where my vote won’t be wasted. Then yahoo’s like Clark will NOT have the power over all ( FISH FARMS, IPP’s, SITE C, KINDER MORGAN, etc. etc. ) . Wish you had of included this in your wonderful article. Keep on going brother !

  2. The government believes it’s the boss. They did this even when Mr. Mair was in power. It has not changed with the BC Liberals, in facts gotten even worse.


    Site C on the Peace River was planned at the same time as dams along the Columbia River—after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was tasked with ensuring America “never runs out of water” and set about mapping Canada’s water resources. Every engineering plan put in the table shows only two routes to divert coastal runoff water from the north into rivers in the south: the Columbia River (to bring it west of the Rockies) and the Peace River (to bring it east of the Rockies).

    The thing about 100-year plans is when worrisome things don’t happen right away, people stop paying attention. But money, like a patient cat, never takes its eyes off the prize. The free-trade agreement with the United States and the subsequent North American Free Trade Agreement got rid of the messy sovereignty issues.

    Once B.C. Hydro – driven to the brink of bankruptcy by the building of this dam at taxpayer expense – is privatized, all will be in place. Site C may provide energy and water for fracking in the medium term. In the long term, that water will have a far higher value.

    Whether you agree or disagree with such things, we clearly as a province and a nation must discuss this. Else we are sheep.

    How will this come about?

    The continental water sharing enabled by the construction of the Site C dam will not be precipitated by America knocking on the international door and saying we want your water. Nor will it, as some suggest, be with guns. It will be far subtler than that, with “drivers” rooted in provincial water licenses, irrigation projects and the popular acceptance of “clean energy” hydro power.

    Consider this: after BC taxpayers fund the construction of the $10-15 billion Site C Dam through taxes and rate hikes, and BC hydro – bleeding red ink – begins selling even more costly Site C power to a CAPTIVE residential market while giving it away to fracking interests in the north, our once-great BC Hydro Crown Corporation – along with all of its water licenses – will quickly fall to private hands (PPP or a private entity), undoubtedly involving US investors.

    Provincial water licenses are not use-specific (e.g. limited to hydroelectricity). License holders may use that water in any way they see fit that meets the objectives of their business plan (responds to market demand and maximizes returns to investors). The operation of the Columbia Treaty dams is a good example. Conceived in the late 50’s – at the same time as the dams on the Peace River – by the US Army Corps of Engineers and others, the stated purpose of the Columbia Treaty dams are to store and release water for downsteam power generation and flood protection. Yet Bonneville Power regularly directs Canada to manage upstream storage to meet non-energy needs in the US relating to – for example – fish and wildlife, the environment, tourism (light show on the Grand Coulee Dam) and agriculture in the Columbia Basin. All for very cheap hydro-based rates. In the 1990’s Bonneville Power purchased an additional annual water allotment of 3 million acre-feet.

    Under continental water sharing plans, the system of dams on the Peace River will bring northern water from Canada and Alaska east of the Rockies into Alberta and the central western US. Through a complex series of agreements couched in building “sustainable” “clean energy” and irrigation infrastructure and involving Canada, BC, Alberta, Alaska, US border states, the US Army Corps of Engineers, Bechtel, SNC Lavalin and the rest…), the dreams of those “visionary Army guys” back in the day to engineer the plumbing North America will become a reality.

    NOTE: The above comments are not made in my capacity as a Professional Agrologist (Ret.d). They represent my opinion as a Canadian resource economist and public policy analyst who has been watching the water file for over 30 years. (Holm, W.R. et al. Water and Free Trade – Mulroney’s Agenda for Canada’s Most Precious Resource. James Lorimer and Sons, Toronto. 1988.)

  4. AND THEN THERE IS FOOD SECURITY I am one of the two BC Agrologists who undertook the Environmental Impact Assessment on agriculture for the Site C Dam.

    The rich alluvial soils of BC’s Peace River Valley, with its east west orientation and Class One Climate for agriculture, make this unique valley one of the most important horticulture regions in western Canada.

    Able to grow the same range of crops as BC’s Fraser Valley, often with higher yields due to longer northern days, the fertile soils of the Peace River Valley are able to produce a sufficient quantity of fresh fruits and vegetables to meet the nutritional requirements of over one million people a year. Every year. In perpetuity. These figures are derived from BC Hydro’s own analysis, tabled with the BC Utility Commission back in 1982, and are based on BC Hydro’s 2013 estimate of 1,666 hectares of farmland lost (a mere 13% of land impacted by the dam). When alluvial soils dismissed by BC Hydro sleight-of-hand as “low utility” are considered, the number of people whose nutritional needs could be met by BC’s Peace River Valley rises to over two million.

    BC imports 57 percent of the vegetables we could grow here. Most are from California or Mexico, a region that clearly cannot continue to export scarce water as food. A 2014 report by Vancity Credit Union (Wake up Call – California’s Drought and B.C.’s Food Security) warns of vegetable price increases of from 25 to 50 percent a year over the next five years.

    BC’s Peace River Valley is closer to the Lower Mainland than is California’s Central Valley. The Peace is also much closer to communities in northern B.C., the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories, where families struggle under what then opposition Liberal MP and current Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett has called the “abject failure” of Canada’s Nutrition North program.

    According to Statistics Canada (Food Insecurity in Canada), one in 12 Canadian households experienced food insecurity (due to lack of money) during 2011-2012. In single-parent families, almost one in four households—three times the national average—are food insecure. B.C. has the highest child poverty rate in the nation.

    Early childhood nutrition is the most important determinant of health in life. Fruits and vegetables are the essential building bocks of nutrition. When mothers don’t have enough income to put fruits and vegetables on the table, children’s health suffers.

    A recent study published by the Journal of Nature claims global food production will be increasingly disrupted by extreme weather driven by climate change. Navan Ramankutty, senior author of the study and professor of global food security and sustainability at the University of British Columbia, claims the impact will be greatest in developed nations, where recent droughts had a 7 percent greater impact on food production than did droughts in the past. Food security is a matter of global concern.

    To dam this richly productive foodlands commons is a tragedy of public policy. In order to deliver the rights of British Columbians to food security and support community resilience, recent federal permits must be withdrawn, construction on the dam halted, and the proposed Site C project referred to the BC Utilities Commission for full and transparent public hearings. In their analysis of the benefits and costs of the proposed Site C “energy project”, the BC Utilities Commission must have the mandate (which the Joint Federal Provincial Panel lacked) to accurately measure the public cost of flooding this uniquely productive farmland on food security, food resilience, human nutrition, early childhood development (particularly for low income families in BC and the North), human health and the rights of future generations to an enhanced and enriched foodlands commons.

    Holm Submission to CEAA/EAO Joint Review Panel on BC Hydro Site C Clean Energy Project Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) – Potential Project Impact on Agriculture (Economic)

    Holm testimony as an Expert Witness before the panel in January 2014: DIMINISHED AND DISMISSED

  5. Great piece Rafe – we should discuss Site C’s end game: water. Specifically, large scale continental water sharing projects. Site C is right where it needs to be to serve the “lego-4-plumbers/snakes and ladders” continental water projects ALL OF WHICH rely on Site C and the Peace River to get water from Alaska and NW Canada east of the Rockies. Watch this quick video then let’s talk. Maude Barlow circulated it last week.

    1. Hugh, far be it for me to blow holes in your or Rafe’s condemnation of the Liberals pact with the IPP’s regarding their sweetheart deal, but don’t we get SOMETHING for the $56 billion? We DO get SOME power, just not the market value? And the $56 Billion if for future obligations too? As I understand it (I don’t really), we have contracted to pay them (IPPs) $56 Billion, for which we may get, say, $20 Billion, or some number, of reasonably priced goods.

      And I’m most certainly NOT coming to the defence of those……swine!

      1. “As I understand it (I don’t really), we have contracted to pay them (IPPs) $56 Billion, for which we may get, say, $20 Billion, or some number, of reasonably priced goods.”

        Goods are not reasonably priced when the buyer pays $36 billion more than their value.

  6. Sorry, but some, if not many decisions can not be left to the public to vote on for two reasons…Most people will vote with emotion slanted by whichever side has the best social media campaign, and the media in general does a poor job at educating people. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of the current government, but I do enjoy some of the cheapest power in North America, and perhaps the world. The reason we enjoy cheap clean power is because of vision and investment a century ago. So perhaps there is no present immediate need for Site C, but this is an asset that will benefit your grandchildren and their children. I can guarantee you that as our population grows, so will our need for power. I never see any media about that?

    1. It must be understood that hydro electric dams are yesterday’s technology. Too large a footprint. Too little power generated for their size. Geo thermal costs a small fraction of a dam…is ready in a fraction of the time and IS environmentally friendly….and who knows when it too will become redundant with future technological advances. Site C is wrong…

    2. I’m not so sure that there is a direct correlation between population growth and the need for power. Technological innovation, energy conservation and economics will all have a bearing on future consumption. As far as Site C benefitting your grand children and their children, I really think the banks will have sloughed by then making the whole venture worthless. Try natural gas, or better still, geothermal.

    3. Hydroelectric dams are dirty, destructive and they poison our water, wildlife, fish and any plant life in and around a reservoir. I know, I live near the 7th largest reservoir on earth. Methylmercury is at alarmingly high levels in Williston 53 years in. Also, the WAC Bennett dam, holding back that colossal reservoir has been eroding since 1998, unabated I might add. What sense does it make to build a $10 billion dam in front of it? Hmm? Another point I would argue in your comment is your assumption that the public cannot make a decision without voting “with their emotions” that is insulting and completely without merit. The only think about site c that will affect our grandchildren and 2X great grandchildren is the fact that they will be paying for it. BC Hydro executive, under oath, stated that site c will never pay for itself or make money. We will sell the power for half of what it costs to produce it. Maybe it’s time for you, not the rest of us “emotional voters” that need to do a little research before you judge us soft folks.

  7. Is it true that BCH has large direct interests/ownership in the nat gas industry ? Facilitating the shuffle of money back and forth between companies?

    1. That BCH has interests/ownership in Ngas would be highly unlikely….they are not allowed to promote Ngas for heating homes for example over the use of electric heat. Seems counter productive when you can’t promote an investment…..

  8. I am wondering if you meant “which has a long history of deliberately overestimating costs” or overestimating demand? and underestimating costs? Anyway, I haven’t got a problem with a political decision if it looks at all the issues in an unbiased way which has always been the Liberals downfall with respect to Site C. They have consistently since 2001 minimized the publics input, minimized expert advice, and minimized responsible evaluation before the BCUC or the Joint Review Panel.

    Remember that the Social Credit Government of Bill Bennett was pushing hard that Site C would be built back in your days with them, they had a good hearing, and they changed their mind, seeing that it would be a money pit. The environmental, resource loss costs, and the social impact has always been downplayed by Hydro, the difference this time is that Hydro also tried to downplay the financial costs. They realized I assume that as Mr. Swain said, the economics are that bad, and they didn’t want to talk about that either.

  9. But Rafe…referendums would go against all that is holy in the political landscape of back room deals with lobbyists and financial contributors…

    If referendums became the norm why would we even need politicians?

    Let the beaurocrats run the day to day operations and rule by referendum.

    Money….BIG money is offered for election war chests, accepted by ALL political party’s and then favours are owed

    And THAT is why the status quo wont change

  10. It is refreshing to come and read something sane and based on common sense given what is going on around us. If only the CBC would include some power panel members who are from BC and not from the mainstream media there might be a chance for some national dialogue on real issues. The arrogance shown by the BC Government run by Christy is astounding and it is mind boggling to think that she actually believes she has the intelligence to lead a province.

    1. She doesnt need intelligence because the average voter is even stupider than her.

      She’s managed to baffle us with BS for 4 years, all with a compliant , back pocket media cheering her on………
      To the average, uninterested, uninformed, voter in Lotusland …..whats another 4 years of her endless inane prattling going to harm?

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