Thursday, October 28, 2010

Wild salmon alliances

Photos Don Staniford

The canoe landing protocol which First Nations travelers observe when they reach another nation's shores is a very formal one. I was fortunate to witness it on several occasions during the Paddle for Wild Salmon, a one-week journey down the Fraser River from Hope to Vancouver which a group of 100 paddlers recently undertook to demand that fish farms release their diseased fish data. It's a beautiful and powerful protocol, which takes place as follows.

The hereditary chief and members of the welcoming nation gather on the beach singing and drumming. The approaching travelers raise their paddles in vertical position, letting the canoes glide gently towards the shore as a sign of non-aggression. The canoes are brought to a full stop a few feet away from the shoreline and rafted together to face the welcoming party. One of the indigenous members of the flotilla addresses the chief. He states his name and nation of origin, explains that he and his fellow paddlers are traveling on a journey to protect the wild salmon and asks permission for his party to come ashore and get some rest before continuing on. The chief states his own name and role and responds that his nation shares the concern of the travelers over the future of the wild salmon. He welcomes them to come ashore and invites them to rest and break bread. Both speakers use their loud voices to ensure that all can hear, they choose words and expressions carrying particular meaning, and emphasize their speeches with expressive gestures such as grabbing a handful of water or sweeping the horizon with an extended arm.

I raise my hands to who you are, one of the chiefs said to the paddlers on one such occasion. I call you now my brothers and sisters that travel on this water with an open heart and mind of hope. I see the salmon heads that decorate the front of your canoes as an expression of the message that you are carrying to the bigger people [swooping gesture towards Vancouver], which tend to take care of our water in the wrong way.

I joined the paddle on its fifth day. As we disembarked in Musqueam at the end of the day, I was drawn in by the incredible intensity of this beautiful protocol. In the oral tradition of the First Nations, such ceremonies carry great cultural significance and also constitute a basis of agreement between two groups. The people who are gathered hear the specific terms of the exchange and can bear witness to what was said and agreed upon: in the absence of paper, the witnesses constitute the agreement.

The Musqueam people took us to their large communal room for the evening where they had prepared a sumptuous feast in our honor. After dinner, chiefs and representatives from various nations who had responded to Alexandra Morton's call for action sang and talked about the wild salmon. A young man sang a beautiful healing song from his nation, which he said he felt was fitting since we were on a journey to heal the wild salmon for our children and grandchildren. He then added: what a wonderful time to be alive, what a great responsibility, what a task we have in front of us, what a honor! Chief Marilyn Baptiste from the Xeni Gwet'in nation said a few words about the struggle that her people is waging to save Fish Lake from annihilation by a mining company. She explained that her nation may have no choice but take direct radical action to protect their lake.

Of all the leaders gathered in Musqueam that night, the only one who did not talk publicly was Alexandra Morton. Instead, she stood in the circle which had formed around the speakers and silently listened to everything which was being said. By traveling to the First Nations over the past weeks and months to meet them face-to-face, by spending so much time in gatherings and circles like this one, by listening in silence to the peoples and their struggles and their songs again and again, by breathing in their culture on a daily basis, Alex has succeeded where historically most environmentalists have failed in this Province – to establish durable, viable, long-term alliances with the First Nations, federating indigenous and ‘settlers’ alike under the common banner of the wild salmon. She has also, by mixing nations and their issues together in rooms such as this one, provided the First Nations with opportunities to build and strengthen alliances of their own.

The contrast between Alex’s approach and the shallow ‘take it or leave it’ deals that large corporations impose on their own terms to local bands over resource-extraction projects, couldn't be more striking. How many CEOs and politicians have spent one night – let alone entire weeks – sleeping on the floor of a band’s common room and taken the time to actually listen to what they had to say? It was particularly comforting to environmentalists such as myself to acknowledge the presence of representatives of the Homalco nation, who had joined the Paddle in Musqueam after an epic canoe journey across the Salish Sea with travelers from other nations. One will indeed recall that the Homalco were at the center of Plutonic Power's PR campaign over its Bute Inlet private power mega-project. With the help of controversial Klahoose elected chief Ken Brown, Plutonic had secured a deal which it had advertised in triumphant media releases stating that the company was “working” with the First Nations. The Bute project has since then collapsed, and so have the alleged benefits that Brown had hastily promised to his people. For their part, the alliances that Alex has initiated with nations such as the Homalco are made to stand the test of time.

The next morning we paddled from Musqueam to Jericho Beach. The atmosphere on the water was relaxed and joyful. People were singing and cracking jokes from one canoe to another. We were at that stage in every journey when people have become very familiar and comfortable with one another, when latecomers have been properly integrated to the mix by those of the first hour. The tide was coming out, the current and the wind were pushing us, and the sun joined in for the better part of the paddle contrary to Environment Canada’s dire predictions. After a quick stop at Spanish Banks to grab a snack we were back on the water, but then the radio called in to tell us that one of the hereditary chiefs meant to greet us at Jericho was running late, and so we were kindly asked to raft together and kill some time on the water. We gracefully obliged, remarking among ourselves that no matter who you are or what you do in life, you always seem to be waiting for some chief.

That downtime on the water turned out to be one of the high moments of the journey, according to people who had been on it since the first day. As we are floating in one big raft in the middle of the Bay, one of the First Nations leaders stands up and gets us into some singing. We sing well on that morning, in unison with a loud and clear voice. In that very moment, we are indeed one voice, one salmon nation united in a common purpose. We all bear witness that the alliance between the peoples of this land for the healing of the salmon has been enacted. As witnesses, we constitute the alliance. After the singing, Alex is invited to say a few words. She looks at us with her beautiful smile and simply says: Well, I think we'll get to keep our wild salmon after all.

The following day is Monday, and it is a work day for us paddlers as much as it is for most Vancouverites. This is the day when we deliver our message to the Cohen Commission that the fish farms must release their fish disease data – all their data since their operations started, not a limited dataset from some handpicked farms as the industry just did to counter our paddle in the media. It's a simple demand, really: release all your data. If you can’t, what are you hiding? To that effect, we paddle one last time from Jericho to Vanier Park. The strong wind and heavy rain are whipping our faces, and what was supposed to be a leisurely paddle turns out to be one of the hardest legs of the journey. For those long minutes we feel like the wild salmon, struggling hard against the elements to reach the destination where we know we must be. My eight-year old daughter who joined us for this last leg is shivering with cold but soldiering on, bravely casting her small paddle into the water with the rest of us. My heart is throbbing with pride.

After disembarking at Vanier Park, we march to the Cohen Commission in downtown Vancouver where Alex delivers our message to Justice Cohen in person, and we get a wild salmon rally going at the Art Gallery. As I distribute salmon stickers and information fliers to passers-by – most of them extremely sympathetic to our cause –, I look up at the glass tower where Mr. Cohen is holding his hearings. He is listening to us behind one of those windows, I think. Well, he better be. Because a lot of good people have worked their asses off on their own time and money to deliver him that message.

At the after-rally party, Alex Morton said the following: I'm not sure yet if we made a difference or not. Change is not incremental. Marilyn Baptiste will die for her land and that's the level where we need to be. I think that now, I’m just going to sleep. I'm a shell right now. When you're in the middle of this, you run on the energy.

I hear your words of caution about whether or not we have made a difference, Alex. But I beg to differ. That difference has been made already, thanks to the deep roots of unity that you have planted along with the other leaders who answered your call. This alliance of the wild salmon, of which I caught a glimpse during my few days on the paddle, is not going to vanish away. Not this time. Someone had to initiate that alliance, and you did. Good on you. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. You may sleep now.

(a salmon people's hero)

(another one)


Friday, October 22, 2010

The force of anger

Betty Krawczyk. 

Last September, Crown Counsel took veteran environmental activist Betty Krawczyk to a new level in her struggle with the BC legal system. She is now facing – at least in theory – the prospect of life in prison for having temporarily and non-violently stood in the way of trucks and heavy machinery. To that effect, Crown Counsel has submitted two rulings to the court involving repeat violent pedophiles who had raped their own children, indicating that those rulings were relevant to Betty's case. That's quite an irony when one considers that this grandmother has spent her golden years standing up against large corporations which were raping the environment.

A few days ago, Crown Counsel announced that in the BC Rail corruption trial it had reached a guilty plea deal with the defendants, and therefore the case was closed before Gordon Campbell and his former finance minister Gary Collins could be called to testify. For some detailed analysis of this development, I refer you to Rafe Mair's indispensable and surgical daily blog. The two defendants, Basi and Virk, are reported to have signed a non-disclosure agreement with the Crown whereby they are contractually obligated to take to the grave the secrets of this case. In its wisdom, the Crown also found it appropriate to stick the BC taxpayer with the defendants' legal bills in the amount of $6 million.

Each of these announcements is stunning in its own right, but they take their full significance when put in resonance with one another. Together, they underscore the growing rift between the ruling class' infinite leniency towards itself, and its extreme severity and growing repressive stance towards ordinary citizens.

Such moves by the Attorney General's office are usually carefully calculated. In the case involving Betty, the goal is to send a chill wave through the activist community by making an example of a high-profile iconic figure. The calculation is that this obvious overkill on the part of the Crown will (a) feed our instinct of fear and increase our general sense of powerlessness and apathy, and (b) possibly set a useful legal precedent in the event that new generations of radicalized Betties would come of age.

And indeed, if it were carried through, the Crown's threat against Betty would probably be successful in achieving that goal. Increased repression and criminalization of nonviolent and non-criminal acts of civil disobedience does cause well-meaning people to pause and think harder about the consequences of their actions before they act. Who wants to go to jail for 10 months – let alone a lifetime – for holding back a bunch of construction trucks for a week or two? Certainly not me.

And yet, how little does the elite class understand the laws of dialectics! Clearly, they do not see that through their actions they are awakening and enabling the very monster that they are trying to keep locked away. They are, in their mode of reasoning, the tributaries of formal logic. In their worldview, something can never be simultaneously something else. People are either scared or they are not. They are either apathetic or politically active. If you successfully scare them into a state of apathy, you have by all measures accomplished your mission, case closed. Sometimes after a time of relative calm people grow agitated again, and so then you scare them again by stepping up the repression by a couple notches. Causes are followed by effects. A simple world, really.

In contrast dialectics, which can be defined as the study of the general laws of motion, describes the permanent state of change of things - which are, quite literally, always simultaneously themselves and something else. One huge practical benefit of dialectics as a methodology is that it is adept in all things contradictory. Whereas formal logic is incapable of explaining contradiction and generally dismisses it as a form of error, dialectics thrives on it. The dialectician actively seeks contradiction everywhere, sees it always as an opportunity and never as a problem, reads in its distinct pattern an indication that change is about to occur - that things are about to be set in motion.

Well folks – things are about to be set in motion. The elite class' contradictory treatment of the rule of law, their ridiculous leniency towards themselves paired with their increasingly repressive stance towards the rest of us, throws us, in turn, into a deep state of contradiction. We are deeply conflicted between our growing fear of repression against dissent, which leads us to apathy, and our growing revulsion of the elite class' appropriation of the judicial apparatus to their own benefit, which leads us to anger and therefore dissent.

As a social force, anger follows the same general laws as any physical force found in nature. A force which is repressed does not vanish away. Rather, it accumulates behind the obstacle which retains it and grows in magnitude until the obstacle comes under stress. And when the force is eventually released, it takes the form of a violent explosion which brings the obstacle down. Today, the obstacle constituted by the elite class' judicial apparatus is finding itself under considerable stress, pressured as it is by the forces of anger accumulating behind it. 

Those pressures will continue to grow in years to come, as our rulers' judicial schizophrenia does not happen in a vacuum. It takes place in a global socioeconomic context of systematic looting of the public commons which I had referred to in an earlier blog post as a modern form of barbarism. It is because they are robbing us that the world's elite class must allocate an increasing amount of their resources to both controlling us and getting themselves off the hook whenever they get caught. Gordo and friends did not invent the neoliberal ideology which transfers the public commons into private hands: they are simply doing what the members of their global class are meant to do. And so, they have no option but continue to crack down on activists like Betty while bailing themselves out, thus accelerating the conditions for a massive social explosion. They are objectively working on the side of the revolution. All I can say to them is – keep it up, brothers!

In my frequent moments of powerlessness and apathy, I take personal comfort in one particular law of dialectics, the law of transformation of quantity into quality. Water when cooled down to zero degree turns to ice not gradually, but all at once. Change when it happens is usually not incremental but instantaneous and brings along a new qualitative reality. There are thresholds when suddenly we are not in Kansas anymore. That is what, for example, makes the threat of climate change so godawful terrifying. This law helps me answer the nagging question of why are we keeping our heads down, even as the elite class continues to abuse us on a daily basis. Marxist commentator Rob Sewell wrote:

“Just as colossal subterranean pressures that accumulate and periodically break through the earth's crust in the form of earthquakes, so gradual changes in the consciousness of people lead to an explosion which is turned into a class struggle. The "cause" of the qualitative change may be something quite small and incidental, but it has become "the last straw that breaks the camel's back", to use a popular (dialectical) expression. It has become the catalyst whereby quantity changes into quality.”

"A catalyst" is also what Rafe Mair called Betty in a recent column. He is spot on. That, indeed, has been Betty's historical significance in this province. By using disproportionate legal weaponry against her, the judicial apparatus has only succeeded in speeding up the very chemical reaction which it was trying to avoid. The Crown has realized the magnitude of its error and is now in damage control. It has recently circulated the following statement on the blogosphere, referring to Crown prosecutor Mike Brundrett's submission to the court of the two pedophile rulings:

"While making submissions to a Court the Crown may refer to cases for the legal principles they set out. That does not mean that the Crown equates the background facts of those cases with the case before the Court. In the context of Ms Krawczyk’s appeal, the Crown is not analogizing acts of civil disobedience with sexual offences."

Too late, Mr. Brundrett. The reaction is already initiated, the contradiction has been expressed. You are no longer in control in this matter. The laws of motion are in control.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Salmon connections

Photos Isabelle Groc, Tidelife Photography.

It was, we were told, the run of the century. So we decided to give ourselves adequate time at the Adams River. We settled for three full days with nothing else to do but sit with the sockeye and watch them undergo their magnificent transformation.

We walked off the parking lot and onto the river trail and realized right away that this year was of a different order of magnitude. We were stunned. The river was filled with thousands upon thousands of sockeye grouped in gigantic schools every two to three hundred meters, which were so dense that they looked like herring balls. I had been to the Adams four times already, but for the first time I was seeing the red river that elders sometimes talk about and which I had, until now, dismissed as a legend.

The other striking anomaly was the number of people massed on the river banks. I was habituated from previous years to walk the Adams in virtual solitude. This time, my family and I had to struggle to make our way through the crowd. There were many bodies in the water for sure, but also many bodies standing out of it. All these people staring and pointing and smiling at the salmon: if there ever existed tangible connections between humans and salmon, I was surely looking at one.

Kids were pulling their parents by the sleeve crying 'This way!' with their strident high-pitched voices. An old man who was hooked up to a respiration system was wheeling his bulky oxygen bottle along the bumpy trail towards the river bank. High-end urban people dressed in designer fashion clothes were rubbing shoulders with local folks dressed like you and me. Thomson River University students were exchanging amused comments with a congregation of nuns. Canada was standing on the banks of that river, and so too was the rest of the world if one believed the world map at the main entrance where people were invited to pin their place of origin and which was, literally, overflowing with pins.

The salmon, for their part, were oblivious of this human run taking place above their heads. Or were they? A badly diseased female – her decaying skin literally peeling off her head – was stubbornly guarding her nest in spite of a group of onlookers standing no more than four feet away from her. When a little girl came running down towards the bank, however, the fish took off like an arrow. The girl screeched to a standstill having realized the commotion she had caused in the water, and the fish came back. They were definitely watching our every move and we were no doubt impacting them.

The powerful stench of decaying dead fish was actually pleasant to my nose, probably because of its distinctive oceanic character which I was surprised and stimulated to find here, some five hundred kilometers away from the shoreline. One of the sockeye's many great powers is its ability to bend the laws of geography by turning a remote BC Interior area such as the Shuswap into a coastal region for an entire month every year.

At lunch, I sat down with a retired couple who had traveled from Penticton to salute the salmon. I wonder, I asked them, if people come here because they are just curious or because they are truly impacted by the salmon. I think it's a bit of both, the man replied. And if they arrived just curious they will leave impacted, he added.

People who visit the Adams for longer than an afternoon soon realize that the place is smaller than it appears and can easily be covered on foot. So they relax and usually settle for one or two personal favorite spots where they linger, come back, identify specific individuals among the masses of salmon, and start noticing the subtle and stunningly beautiful details of a sockeye's final hours.

In one of my own favorite spots, I focused on a salmon couple guarding their nest. I had known for some time that sockeye could be pretty aggressive animals. What I noticed this time around was the other side of that reality –  companionship. There was a strict division of labor between that male and that female as they fought off intruders. The female chased other females, the male other males. They almost never attacked the opposite sex, except in one instance when the male appeared to be in trouble, to which the female immediately responded by bravely stepping into the fight. Another observation drew me closer to those two fish than I could expect. Every time one of the two partners chased off an intruder, it would then perform a full circle to come back to the nest from behind and, upon arrival, it would give a quick rub to the other, as if to say ‘I'm back’.

It is not all just happy and nice at the Adams River. One group of people who could definitely use a little more relaxation and observation time in their own personal favorite spots are the so-called underwater “wildlife photographers”. I use quotes here because, frankly, those particular photographers which I got to observe at the Adams didn't appear to care much about their subject. I saw many of them walk or stand in spawned sections of the river, destroying nests, chasing salmon away, and producing plumes of silt in their wake.

I confronted one of those individuals who brushed me off as an ignorant moron. Some “wildlife photographers” clearly believe that the basic rules of conservation do not apply to them, perhaps because they feel that what they are doing is far too important to have to worry about such petty details as not stepping on eggs, or perhaps because they take comfort in carrying around some pretty expensive phallic-shaped objects. I don't know and frankly I don't care, but I do know that their mindset is that of trophy hunters, not “wildlife photographers”. Those who act in such ways are parasites to the wildlife that they claim to photograph. I wish that the profession would crack down more forcefully on these rogue individuals through peer pressure and ostracism if needed.

My wife told me of another physical encounter between human and salmon that she witnessed, and which took on a whole different meaning. A Shuswap elder woman came down to the river with her grandson to salute the sockeye. She showed him how to touch a fish without startling it. It was, according to my wife, a very delicate, technical, and gradual process which the little boy carried out successfully. The salmon did not move as it was being gently stroked. Shushwap elder woman and her grandson on the one hand, Canon-bearing trophy hunters on the other. Two colliding and incompatible worldviews, one respectful and the other one not, yet both involving a physical interaction with the animal.

Another favorite spot of my wife and myself is the river mouth where the salmon enter into the Adams River from Shuswap Lake. There is an extremely shallow stretch of water there, about 10 meters long and perhaps two inches deep, which the salmon must cross in order to reach the river. They are forced to get literally out of the water and dash their way to safety. A sockeye sprinting above the surface of the water is more exhilarating to watch than the Olympic 100 meters final.

Because that river mouth is so treacherously shallow, the sockeye were particularly careful when entering it. They would gather at its entrance and wait, sometimes for hours, conflicted between their instinct of reproduction which told them Go! and that of survival which told them Don't! As new salmon kept arriving from the lake behind (the run was not yet finished), the waiting party would gradually grow until it would reach a critical mass. At that point one fish bolder than the others would venture into the river mouth, immediately followed by a bunch of others. And so, following the principle of force in numbers, the sockeye would almost always enter the Adams River as a group.

In a sense this is where we activists are today – at the mouth of the river, frightened by invisible corporate predators and ill-defined legal threats, waiting for one if us to make the first move. That one, historically, has been Alexandra Morton in the battle for wild salmon. Rather than a “leader”, she is better described as an individual who is bolder and more determined than most of us. She has made that first move, and now we are all seizing the opportunity to make a run with her. That was the meaning of Alex's march to the Victoria legislature last May. It is the meaning of this week's paddle down the Fraser River, and the ensuing walk to the Cohen Commission in downtown Vancouver next Monday. If only we were able to show up in great numbers in one location, as the Adams sockeye did this year, we would be an irresistible force indeed.

For the next few nights after this, I dream of the sockeye. You are home, I tell them. Do what you have to do, and come back. We are lost without you.

This weekend's calendar of events

What: Celebration at Jericho Beach to Welcome the Paddle
When: Sunday, October 24, 2010 - 12:00 - 16:00
WhereJericho Beach, Vancouver

What: Stand up for Justice for Wild Salmon (Cohen Commission)
When: Monday, October 25, 2010 - 10:00 - 15:00
Where: Vanier Park, then 701 W. Georgia, then Vancouver Art Gallery


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Calling all wild salmon people

The Paddle for Wild Salmon kicks off in Hope on October 19 and ends in downtown Vancouver on the 25th, to coincide with the opening day of the Cohen Commission’s evidential hearings on the disappearance of last year's Fraser River Sockeye run.

I'll be personally joining the flotilla on October 23, 24, and 25 (I'll be embarking in New Westminster) and I'll report back on the event on this blog.

But before that, I'm taking my family to Adams River this coming weekend, where we will salute the run of the century - over 30 million sockeye, OMG!! I'll definitely report on that as well.

If you feel like joining me for the paddle next week, simply RSVP to the email posted below. You are advised to do that ASAP, as spaces on the boats are said to be filling up quickly.

Hope to see you on the water!

Hello all Paddlers from far and wide,
If you have received this email, it means that we have you on our paddle participant list, and we expect that you are coming along on the paddle.
If we are mistaken, then please email back as soon as possible and let us know so we can give your seat to someone else.
If you haven't confirmed the days you are coming along, or are not sure about anything at all after reading the attached document, please contact Alexis Baker, Nicole MacKay, or Elena Edwards at the email addresses below.
For the paddling itinerary, visit us here -
 If you know people who want to join up, or have friends that you have signed up that we do not have contact details for,  please forward them this email and have them RSVP to: and or by telephone to Elena - 1+ (604)820-0088
As we draw closer to the actual day and carry on with our journey, 
we will most easily be reached through Don Staniford's cell phone 1 (250) 230-1172

The send off BBQ and celebration is at the Telte-Yet Camp Site in Hope is in one week! 
Please come between 5 pm and 8 pm on October 19th to the Telte-Yet Camp Site - 600 Water, Hope, BC V0X 1L0‎ - (604) 869-9481

Many Thanks, and see you soon.


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Gordo to increase private power rates

We sure can do it again: Anti-IPP rally in Kaslo, British Columbia. Photo Damien Gillis

An interesting announcement by the BC government this morning, which fits into my blog post from yesterday.

The BC government is considering an increase - not decrease - to its premium rates paid to IPPs. As it stands, those rates (~$100 per MWh) are already considerably higher than the spot market average price (~$50 per MWh). So Campbell is about to make a bad deal for the BC ratepayer even worse.

Why would he do that? Because BC is finding it increasingly difficult to attract good investors to its private power adventure, in a context of continued recession in the US (call it a "jobless recovery" if you like), the emergence of new renewable energy players such as California's solar industry, a growing energy overproduction crisis on the continent, and therefore a situation of increased competition among governments - in this case, BC is trying to outbid Ontario's own generous offerings to the private power industry.

In other terms, Campbell is now fishing at the bottom of the barrel, trying to attract second rate investors now that the bigger ones appear to be walking away, or to get the big ones back with much higher payoffs.

This is extremely problematic, especially when it is coupled with the Site C project being carried out in parallel. The BC taxpayer is being hit by a double whammy: on the one hand, s/he is asked with Site C to produce at his/her own cost a surplus of energy that s/he does not need, and which will be sold at basement bargain rates to the mining industry and other regional polluters (there is rumor of sending Site C's energy to the Tar Sands); on the other hand, s/he will be required to purchase energy that s/he does not need at outrageous rates ($150 per MWh?) from private producers in 40-year contracts, which will also be sold at dirt cheap rates to private mines.

This is theft. How do we intend to protect our property?


Monday, October 4, 2010

Site C, the Neoliberal Plan B

Gordon Campbell selling Site C, April 2010. Photo Vancouver Sun

Many in British Columbia have noticed the curious coincidence between the ongoing agony of the “run-of-river” private power scheme, and the sudden resurgence of Site C as one of our government’s top priority policy objectives.

That timing is not coincidental, but reveals instead an organic link between private power and Site C - a publicly managed 900 MW dam project to be located on the Peace River. Put simply, Site C is Gordon Campbell’s Plan B in his pursuit of the neoliberal agenda, in the event that the collapse of the private power adventure is confirmed in months to come.

For those opposed to private power in this province, what an extraordinary year 2010 has been! No doubt (and barring any last minute catastrophe) this will go down in our collective memories as our finest hour, our annus mirabilis. Let’s summarize.

January. Plutonic Power announces its decision to put its gigantic Bute Inlet private power project on hold for 12 months. Two months later, in March, it announces that the project is suspended indefinitely. It is probable - although none of it has transpired publicly - that General Electric, the project’s financier, killed the Bute once it realized that the risks involved in this $4bn project had escalated dramatically, both in terms of its disastrous public image and the increasing uncertainty about whether BC would even be allowed to sell its energy to California.

April. The modest-size Tyson Creek private power project is temporarily shut down, two months after going online, due to large amounts of sediments being deposed in the nearby fish-bearing Tzoonie river. The incident has brought the entire environmental assessment process into disrepute, as regional districts have discovered to their dismay that some of the most textbook risks such as - duh - the potential sedimentation impact of a lake delta, have been completely left out of the impact studies.

May. BC’s other private megaproject, Kleana Power’s Klinaklini project in Knight Inlet, is killed by BC Hydro after environment minister Barry Penner publicly voices concerns about the project’s potential environmental impacts. The rumour goes that this project was so disastrous environmentally that the government could simply not afford to support it. I will also argue that at that stage of the game, the BC Liberals had already decided to shift their priorities back to Site C.

September. The California legislature says no - again! - to importing BC’s private energy, in spite of the Campbell government’s herculean lobbying efforts. California’s renewable power bill died of neglect on the senate floor, without even being voted upon. Not that it changed much for Campbell anyways, since the California legislators refused to change that bill’s language to qualify BC’s private power as “green”. And why would they? Their political duty is to protect the state’s fledgling solar energy industry - and its badly needed jobs - from the unfair competition of their northern neighbor’s subsidized private energy.

This year’s amazing developments are coming after another pretty good year, 2009, which saw among other things the West Kootenays rise against the Glacier-Howser private power project, and the BC Utilities Commission deliver a resounding slap in the face to the Campbell government by ruling that its private power scheme was “not in the public’s interest”.

On the face of it, Site C signals that Gordon Campbell has finally received the message from the public loud and clear. You don’t like private power? Well okay, he appears to be saying, let me give you instead a good old-fashioned
Bennett-style public project, one that puts BC Hydro back in the driver’s seat, one that even the NDP won’t be able to object to.

Politically, it’s a savvy narrative. But the problem lies in its failure to address two nagging questions:
  1. British Columbia does not need the additional power provided by Site C, any more than it needed that provided by Bute Inlet and the Klinaklini. That point was made clear time and again during the anti-private power campaign. Even BC Hydro acknowledged that fact in its 2007 Marbek Report. And if the purpose of producing this surplus energy was to export it, as the Campbell government was finally forced to acknowledge in 2009, that route has now been closed by California’s lawmakers.

Question #1: if we don’t need it and California doesn’t want it, for whom exactly are we producing Site C’s energy?

  1. The BC government is actively pursuing a transmission line project which is under-reported in mainstream media and therefore remains mostly under the public radar, the Northwest Transmission Line. This $400 to 600m project consists of a 500-kilometre line from Terrace to Dease Lake. Whoa, hold it there - from Terrace to Dease Lake? What’s up there? A handful of diesel-powered rural and First Nations communities which, by the admission of the BC government itself, will not get linked to the grid after this new transmission line is completed.

Question #2: why are we spending half a billion dollars to build a Transmission Line to Nowhere, one which will fail to get a single community off diesel?

With incredible candor, the Mining Association of British Columbia provides a compelling answer to both aforementioned questions in the form of the following map, appearing in a 2008 report which underscores the benefits of the projected transmission line for the mining industry:

The MABC’s report further acknowledges that “demand for power in the northwest is driven largely by the mining sector”, and adds that “the potential economic benefits to the province of constructing the Northwest Transmission Line appear considerable” and are “extremely dependent upon the various mining projects identified in this report”.

And it’s really as simple as that. Site C’s excess energy, paired with this new transmission line, will serve to power private mining ventures in Northern BC. Mines consume enormous amounts of energy, and none of those projects north of Terrace would be economically viable without a very large supply of cheap, publicly subsidized energy. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the neoliberal hat, one being used today all around the world. Large transnational corporations apply their enormous political leverage to obtain from local governments full access to the country’s public resources - both energetic and financial - to the detriment of local populations. It’s a textbook case of the “enclosure of the commons”. 

Campbell’s initial plan was to cater to two of his constituent groups in a single move. (a) Hand BC’s rivers over to the private power industry - the so-called IPPs -, purchase the entirety of the energy produced at outrageously high rates (~$100/MWh) on public funds through exclusive 40-year contracts, and sell that energy back at half the cost (~$50/MWh) on the North American spot market, while (b) catering to the mining industry by providing them with an ample oversupply of cheap energy thanks to the IPP gold rush, and by “investing” provincial and federal taxpayer money in a transmission line which would serve no other purpose in life but to power up those mines. This has nothing to do with sound economics or rational market-driven cost cutting measures. It has everything to do with the looting and pillaging of public resources by an elite class constituted of mutually serving corporate executives and government officials.

Part (a) of Campbell's plan is now falling apart, partly because of the massive public outcry, partly because of the greater economic context of a deepening recession which is now morphing into an outright depression, a situation which exacerbates the likelihood of an energy oversupply in North America, and which has, in turn, triggered California’s lawmakers to deny entry to BC’s private energy. 

And so Campbell is now adapting to the new circumstances and refocusing on part (b) of his plan, the mines. What used to be a sophisticated scheme involving multiple players and several interrelated markets, has now devolved into a coarser and more classical case of good old “third world” appropriation of public wealth by a small group of private players. According to the new Plan B, corporations will now be allowed to make money by purchasing dirt cheap energy from the public, instead of selling it at outrageous rates to the public as was initially envisioned. This shift in the looting strategy reflects the simple fact that, since the 2008 financial meltdown, the energy market has become a buyer's rather than a seller's market.

Frankly, after the promising year 2009 and the glorious year 2010, I am a little worried about 2011. I don’t think that the activist community has fully grasped yet the scope and magnitude of the danger looming ahead, if the BC Liberals are allowed to carry out their plan. If we don’t react rapidly and mount a strong response to this latest phase of the neoliberal assault on our common resources and wealth, 2011 could become a year of major setbacks and great disillusion. Let’s gear up for that next battle.