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Internal strife ignites Saulteau First Nations

Chief, council face backlash in aftermath of 'yes' vote on Site C deal with BC Hydro, but 
Chief Nathan Parenteau says members will have another chance to vote
Chief Nathan Parenteau (left) and councillor Lana Garbitt discuss the BC Hydro Impact Benefits Agreement at the band office with the Alaska Highway News in early July. Mike Carter Photo

Just days after a "yes" vote on a benefits package with BC Hydro over the Site C dam was announced, members of the Saulteau First Nations began to cry foul.

A group calling themselves the Saulteau First Nations Citizens for Accountability has published a list of damning concerns with the vote obtained by the Alaska Highway News.

The acceptance of the terms of a deal was a breakthrough for BC Hydro. The Crown corporation faces continued opposition to the project, including legal challenges from Saulteau's neighbours — West Moberly and other Treaty 8 nations — that are still before provincial and federal courts.

In light of the concerns raised by the group, Chief Nathan Parenteau says the members of his nation will get another chance to vote.

The Saulteau First Nation's (SFN) 1,041 members — the majority of whom live off-reserve — voted to accept the terms of an impacts benefit agreement (IBA) with BC Hydro July 11, after a full week of voting.

The IBA has not been finalized. 

The agreement would include a lump sum payment, annual payments, contracting opportunities and land transfers to the band to make up for the land lost due to flooding of the Peace River for the dam’s reservoir.

Citizens for Accountability (CFA) allege that the vote to accept the terms of the deal was “deeply flawed and undemocratic, demonstrating a negligent abuse of power.”

The group made these remarks in a press release dated July 16, in which they raised questions about the online voting process, the extent to which members were informed on what they were voting for, the targeting of off-reserve members who would supposedly vote in favour of the project and the inability of Chief and council to respond to “reasonable questions and proactive solutions” provided to them, which the CFA claims were “routinely ignored.”

For these reasons, the group asks that the vote be considered invalid.

Repeated calls to members of the CFA for further comment were not returned.

Only 144 out of an eligible 711 voters cast their ballot in the online vote, for a 20 per cent turnout rate, double the turnout rate for past referendums, Parenteau said. 

Although the improvement is noted, many are still saying Chief and council could have done more to encourage voting among members on and off reserve.

Some 62 per cent of those voters (89) voted in favour of the agreement, while 37.8 per cent stood opposed.

Parenteau says community consultations were held with both on and off reserve members for several weeks in advance of the vote, which explained the terms of the deal.

“All of council said, ‘We’re going to be very unbiased about this,’” Parenteau said. “We presented the facts. Here is the destruction that is going to take place. Then we presented the terms [of the IBA], here is what they’re going to give us."

Parenteau noted that most people he has spoken to are not in favour of the dam. He has said himself that he does not want the project to be built. But, he added, if those who are opposed don’t show up to vote, council is forced to move forward with the results they have.

“I would love to have a 50 per cent voter turnout,” he said. “But the fact we got 144, that’s a small victory.”

The CFA alleges that Saulteau First Nations members could not make a fully informed decision and that several members had refused to vote because of it.

“To date, most SFN members have never seen the BC Hydro offer,” the group states.

Parenteau says that’s because there is no agreement to see. 

"I don't have a final agreement hidden in my desk that I'm not showing people," he said. 

“We came to terms, we presented the terms, people said yes with the terms,” he added. “Now those will get turned into an agreement and we’ll present that for the people and if the people want, we’ll vote on it. The final agreement is where all the gritty little details are going to [be worked out].”

The CFA claims off reserve members were “strategically targeted to enlist support,” something Parenteau says is entirely false.

“In my opinion, most people off-reserve are against the project. We weren’t targeting anyone other than eligible voters, no matter where they are in the world.”

The CFA also levied allegations that the online voting system was flawed, saying they had questions about "online voting and dealing with elders and non-computer users, internet/computer access, safety and security measures and confidentiality" that were ignored. 

"The overall lack of information provided are some of the other reasons why many people refused to vote,” their release states.

Parenteau said the online voting process was “explained, then explained again,” for months prior to the referendum. 

Computer access was provided in the band hall, he notes, where several members, young and old, showed up to vote.

Parenteau stood behind the decision to go with an online vote, noting that even the elders he talked to seemed excited about the change. 

 "It gives people the ability to vote who before would have had to pay money to drive or fly here, come into the hall and raise their hand for five minutes and then go home.”

Although the CFA indicates it would like to have the IBA retracted and any further negotiations with BC Hydro suspended, Saulteau has not given any indication that it will do so.

Another vote on the final IBA will likely be held, although not until the fall.

“The idea is that after summer in mid-August, end of August, [we’re] going to start another blitz of community meetings for two months,” Parenteau said. “Until we feel enough people are informed about it and if people at those meetings continue to say we want another vote, then that’s what we’ll do.”

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