The Meridian Dam proposal has been halted in its tracks. The issue has been:
who has power and control, citizens or Government?
- the battle to stop the proposed Meridian Dam (South Saskatchewan River) took approximately 8 months.
- A year later we joined the battle to stop the proposed Highgate Dam (North Sask R$iver). The experience of the Meridian informed and powered the Highgate effort. The win came with comparative ease; people in the area of the River provided the main energy.
A philosophical word first:
1) Step back and look at us, as eyes from the future will see us.
Running through our land we have this River which delivers water to the residents of Calgary, Medicine Hat, and Saskatoon. We have diversion schemes to take the water to many, many communities, some such as Regina and Humboldt a long way from the River. We drink the River’s water from our taps, we use it to wash our clothes, water our gardens and lawns, to water our livestock and to grow our crops. It is used to generate the electrical power for our stoves, refrigerators, and air conditioning. The gifts of the River are more than I can tell you here.
But which one of us has today given thanks for that River? What one of us has ever kneeled down on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River in humbleness and gratitude? Have you ever taken the time to REFLECT, to ACKNOWLEDGE what the River is to us? Imagine your life without the gift of water.
There are many societies that have understood their dependence. The things upon which the society is dependent are sacred. It is not superstition, it is Good Common Sense. You cherish the things upon which your life is dependent. Your grandchildren will be as dependent as you. You protect the gift so they, too, may enjoy the abundance you enjoy.
Outsiders do and will look at our Society in amazement: how is it that these people did not understand their relationship to the River? Can you imagine that they never expressed gratitude? Maybe that was why they could abuse their water supplies.
We display ignorance.
2) The Meridian Dam is one of the first such projects in Canada where environmental factors entered the process at the beginning. That is significant. Until the Meridian it has been acceptable that environmental factors be considered at a “later stage”.
The Meridian lays to rest (hopefully) another tradition: decision-making based on local impact. The Meridian decision was based on information about impacts on the WHOLE riverbasin, upstream and downstream. That is a significant and welcome departure.
The Meridian Dam is probably the first in Alberta and maybe in Canada to have reasonable cost estimates at the pre-feasibility stage (not grossly under-stated costs).
How did the changes come about? The answer is that citizens assumed responsibility for the outcome of the process, from the very beginning, from when inadequate Terms of Reference were on the books. People did not request permission to monitor and direct the process. They just DID it. The events are in #4 below.
3) The Meridian Dam was about the power and control of INFORMATION and PROCESS. If you have control of information and process you have the ability to dictate outcome. Those opposed to the Dam won the battle by:
– having better information than those who wanted to build the Dam
– by creating a large body of well-informed people
– by assuming responsibility for the direction of process.
As much as anything, the battle was to change a “system”, to cause it to deliver good decisions based on an investigation of the WHOLE picture, not just convenient fragments.
If the ammunition was information,
the weapon for firing the ammunition was email.
Believing in the power of information, it was sent to those inside as well as outside Government. We were not secretive but gave up control of the information, thus offering the best chance for the truth to prevail. In the beginning we were sometimes worried about whether “they” might obtain the intelligence we gathered. But that attitude is bred of an adversarial attitude, reflected even in the words I use like “battle”, “ammunition”. Democracy should be a co-operative process.
The battle is my own and your own. The only reason it’s necessary is because, over time, I have handed over responsibility for my community to someone else, to Governments that have centralized power and control. I have ALLOWED them to take control. Democracy was never intended to be that way. Indeed life was never intended to be that way. I can never hand off responsibility for my life and the things that affect it, and my children, to someone else. I can’t PAY other people to fulfill my responsibilities for me. The Meridian has been a battle to take back control, and we have done it, as detailed below.
4) WHAT HAPPENED
– The Alberta Dept of Environment and Saskatchewan Government decided to conduct a “preliminary feasibility study” for a proposed Meridian Dam. May 2001.
You can have great influence over the outcome of a study through the questions you require the study to answer. The original Terms of Reference intended by the Government were simple, antiquated and of the kind that predisposes the study to a decision to proceed to the next stage. A knowledgeable member of the public was alert and wrote up reasonable Terms of Reference. These Terms were extensively circulated. The inadequacy of the original Terms were so obvious when contrasted with the proposed Terms that the original were quietly abandoned. The first victory was getting reasonable Terms of Reference in place.
– Alberta Environment originally decided there was no need for any public consultation. The networking public decided there WAS a need for public consultation. They lobbied and the Governments agreed there should be consultation.
– The published Tender for the Meridian Dam Prefeasibility Study specified that the Consultants would consult with the people in the locale that would be the assumed beneficiaries of the Dam. The networking public said, “No, the project will impact on the entire length of the Riverbasin, and on the people in the provinces who will be required to pay for the project. They will be heard, too.” Intensive lobbying brought agreement that there would be public meetings in Calgary, Saskatoon and Lethbridge, in addition to local meetings.
– The Tender specified that the Consultants would obtain input from specified Government Departments. Again, the networking public said, “No, there is a lot of information outside Government Departments, and many knowledgeable people outside Government. ALL relevant information will be brought to bear.” The network assembled information and asked people to submit information. The public assumed they had a responsibility to do this. It was not necessary to obtain permission from anyone to do so.
– In specifying who WOULD be consulted (again, see the Tender), the Governments omitted CFB Suffield that lives right in the area that would be flooded. They also omitted the oil and gas industry that has millions of dollars invested in the area. The networking public decided these people would have valuable input, and that they SHOULD be consulted, right from the beginning. The network simply assumed responsibility for seeing that so far as it was able, all the parties that SHOULD know about the proposal, were aware of what was going on. People were contacted and information forwarded.
– The Governments said that the information could be sent to them, for them to convey to the Consultants. The networking public said, “No, we are capable and equal adults. We do not require someone else to communicate our work for us. We will make our submissions directly to the Consultants, the same as you are doing.” We did not ask permission. We just DID it. We ensured that people knew to whom to send the information.
– some Government people said, “Environmental considerations enter the process at a later stage”. We pushed, we asked, “By what logic? Why shouldn’t it be economic considerations that enter the process at a later stage?” There were people in Government that agreed with us. The Consultants received environmental information, excellent environmental information.
– We published historical information on the figures used to justify dam construction in the past: feasibility studies have always under-stated costs many times over. Several years after the dam is built, the benefits used as justification have not materialized. We let it be known that a repeat performance would not be acceptable.
– Local people knew there was a highway that would have to be re-routed, a bridge that carried twin pipelines, etc. Other people knew about a study related to irrigation, a publication, etc. We tracked down the far-removed people responsible for highways and bridges to confirm, “Are you planning to submit cost estimates to the Consultants?”. Too many times in the past there have been costly oversights. We let the Consultants know that they should expect to receive such-and-such information from such-and-such a person.
– The Governments held public meetings, very poorly publicized with little advance notice. The networking public assumed responsibility for getting the word to as many people as possible.
– The network gathered local, regional, national and international information related to the issue of rivers and dams. People learned about what was happening in neighbouring American states where over-diversion of water has led to a situation where various users are in sharp competition with each other, creating tensions in the society. The network knows about the pumping out of underground aquifers. By assembling and sharing information, a little bit from this person, a little bit from that person, a large body of aware and knowledgeable people was created. Information is empowering.
– It seems reasonable to conclude that the network reclaimed the responsibility of citizens in a democracy to determine the path that will be trod. They took back power and control by acquiring power and control over information and the decision-making process.
– What was accomplished was made possible by the ability of email to communicate large amounts of information quickly and inexpensively to large numbers of people. An informed public is a great incentive to arrive at the right conclusions.
LESSON: institutions are losing authority. Think of churches. It happens when there are abuses of power and failure to carry out assigned responsibilities. Through the Meridian exercise the Government has lost authority – some of the authority delegated to the Department of Environment has been taken back by citizens.
I invite all of you to join me in cyber-space tonight for a very large celebration. We will dance and sing and be joyful. We will be thankful for the River, for good decisions, and I think the River smiles on each of you.