This is the second post in a three-part series on mega dams by Lori Lee Oates.
As noted in Part One of this series, Canada continues down the mega dam path as much of the world turns away from these problematic structures. Part Two will attempt to set Canadian mega dam failures and colonialisms within a more global context. NiCHE has already effectively addressed the history of displacing Indigenous persons to build mega dams in Canada. In recent decades, this has been done largely to sell hydroelectric power to the United States (US). It is also noteworthy that while the (US) has turned away from dams internally, the country continues to draw on the colonial displacement of Indigenous persons in Canada for its hydropower in order to have access to cost-effective energy. Mega dams have also been built with disastrous result for locals in many countries.
Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011) has addressed the building of mega dams in the global south. Over a decade ago, Nixon noted that mega dams often rely on the displacement of people. He addressed the issue of using public police forces to enforce this form of industrial colonization:
…the dynamics of forced removal depends both on direct police violence and on the administration of an imaginative violence whereby certain communities were designated indispensable to the nation and others designated expendable and driven – literally trucked – out of sight (p. 151).
In 2017, journalist Justin Brake interviewed Mi’kmaw lawyer and Ryerson University’s Associate Professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance Dr. Pam Palmater. Palmater told Brake that “the criminalization of Indigenous Peoples protesting as a form of self-defence is becoming ‘more and more prevalent’ in Canada despite the fact the protests themselves are an effort to guard constitutionally protected rights.”
“The criminalization of Indigenous Peoples protesting as a form of self-defence is becoming ‘more and more prevalent’ in Canada despite the fact the protests themselves are an effort to guard constitutionally protected rights.”Dr. Pam Palmater, The Independent, March 2017.
Nixon has argued that “the production of ghosted communities who haunt the visible nation has been essential to maintaining the dominant narrative of national development, a process that has intensified during the era of neoliberal globalization.” He further notes that “the people recast as ‘surplus’ are most often rural, or at least people sent ricocheting between rural and urban desperation” (p.151). Drawing on the work of Thayer Scudder (2005), Nixon calls them developmental refugees. Scudder estimated that between 30 and 60 million people have been displaced globally by mega dams, and notes that the World Bank has funded many of these dams. Almost without exception, these displacements result in declining indicators of quality of life, including nutrition, health, infant mortality, life expectancy, and environmental viability (p. 152).
Moore and Crocker’s work takes this analysis to a new level in Muskrat Falls: How a Mega Dam Became a Predatory Formation(2021). They situate the Muskrat Falls project within a new type of extractive capitalism that has emerged globally. In the introduction, Crocker describes how “the logistic and means which brought Muskrat Falls to life fit the profile of an increasingly familiar kind of crisis visible across Canada and around the world today, where public means of providing vital services and infrastructural security—that is, access to heat, water, food, energy, shelter—are changed into collateral for risky, speculative enterprises, with often disastrous results” (p.4). Crocker points to the Chalillo Dam built in Belize by Newfoundland and Labrador’s own Fortis Inc., the Irish Water Corporation, the airport in Freetown, Sierra Leone, the Site C Dam in British Columbia, and the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. These projects, he maintains, are part of a new kind of extractive economy that has more to do with legal agreements and loan guarantees (p.4). Risk has been moved from the private sector to the taxpayer. This can make an uneconomical project suddenly seem economical, in a way that shifts not only the risk from the public to the private sector, but often capital as well. This is ‘industrial colonization’ as described by Neria Aylward in the same text (pp. 65-80). There is little incentive to effectively cost a project when there is a loan guarantee backing up the private sector investors. Projects can be sold to the public as being cheaper than they are, as was the case with the Muskrat Falls project before it doubled in price after sanctioning. This is what modern loan guarantees to justify public private partnerships have become.
Brittany Luby has effectively documented the history of hydroelectricity and mega dams in the Lake of the Woods area with her award winning text Dammed: The Politics of Loss and Survival in Anishinaabe Territory (2020). This is one of the most important texts on environmental history in Canada in recent years. The book effectively complicates the narrative of ‘post-war prosperity’ in Canada and shows how this was not always true for Indigenous populations. In many ways, white settler populations thrived because of their access to cheap electricity at the expense of rural areas. She describes how fish that the locals in the Lake of the Woods area depended on as a food source became contaminated by mercury (p.5). As with the Muskrat Falls project, governments failed to consider how hydroelectric development might impact Indigenous food sources. The reality that mega dams are in fact (neo)colonial structures is presented clearly.
“As with the Muskrat Falls project, governments failed to consider how hydroelectric development might impact Indigenous food sources. The reality that mega dams are in fact (neo)colonial structures is presented clearly.”
Despite these wrongs in Canada’s (neo)colonial history, Canadian provinces have pursued mega dams in Manitoba and British Columbia, in addition to Labrador, in recent decades. In 2012, Graham Lane resigned as head of Manitoba’s Public Utilities Board, concerned that the body had “strayed from its main purpose – to provide low cost energy to Manitobans.” The cost of the Keeyask mega dam project had soared from $8.9 billion to $14 billion. Located 725 km north of Winnipeg, the project was built on the Nelson River. Like other mega dams, it is destroying the habitat of biodiversity and food sources such as fish, caribou, moose, and beaver. Also, like other projects, it will have a significantly negative impact on Indigenous populations.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) investigated 9 cases of sexual assault at the Keeyask generating station site while locals complained that Manitoba Hydro was not doing enough to address the situation. As is often the case with sexual assault, there is an expectation that such assaults were under-reported and that others were fearful of coming forward. Grand Chief Garrison Settee of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak and the First Nations people he represents called for measures to protect Indigenous women at the site. This is a stark reminder that the exploitation of Indigenous women has long been built into extractive economics and the colonial project, as put forward by McClintock as far back as 1995. In fact, four First Nations groups came together to request a public inquiry into allegations of sexism and racism at the site of the project.
The Site C mega dam on the Peace River in British Columbia has also raised serious concerns. In 2016 it was revealed that BC Hydro was paying up to $55 million annually to independent power producers to NOT produce power due to oversupply. Site C was also built without any economic justification, and the power will likely be sold at a loss. A group of more than 200 scholars signed a letter raising serious concerns about the process of approving the project to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In an unusual move, the Royal Society of Canada also wrote a letter supporting the 200 scholars. These groups raised concerns about the lack of consultation with First Nations groups. The federal government refused to review the decision despite commitments to Truth and Reconciliation.
Part Three of this series will address the Atlantic Loop and how more damming in Labrador seems to be a key part of the plans for the Canadian green energy transition.
Feature Image: Save the Peace Valley. Signs protesting the Site C dam are plentiful along Highway 29 between Fort St. John and Hudson’s Hope. Photo credit: Emma Gilchrist, DeSmog Canada. “Save the Peace Valley” by The Narwhal Canada is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Latest posts by Lori Lee Oates (see all)
- The Neocolonialism of Using Police to Enforce Problematic Environmental Policy - May 10, 2023
- Mega Dams Part Three: The Atlantic Loop and the Green Energy Transition - October 27, 2022
- Mega Dams Part Two: The global contexts and Canadian mega dam failures - October 14, 2022
- Mega Dams Part One: A Tale of Muskrat Falls and Gull Island - October 7, 2022
- A Transition to Renewables is a Matter of National and Global Security - March 30, 2022
- Climate Change is Colonialism - December 13, 2021
- Addressing the Contemporary Climate Crisis by Decolonizing Environmental History - July 29, 2021