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Columbia River Treaty Negotiations: Communities, Observer Status, & Meaningful Consultation?

The contemporary history of the Kootenay region has been defined and transformed by development – both on the rivers and along side them. Though the dams are highly visible infrastructures on our landscapes, the stories of the people are less visible but their impacts are just as strong. With renegotiations of the Columbia River Treaty happening, it is an important time to consider what the impacts have been, could be, and how the people impacted by these decisions are considered within the treaty.

The Columbia River Treaty is a trans-boundary, water-management agreement between the United States and Canada, ratified in 1964 following years of negotiations that had begun in the 1950s. The treaty sought to optimize flood management and power generation, requiring co-ordinated operations of reservoirs and water flows for the Columbia River and Kootenay River, on both sides of the border. However, dams and power (both social and electrical) were not new to the region – beginning in the 1890s increased development brought to the area through mining, hydro development began to take place. From the first hydroelectric plant built in Nelson in 1896 on Cottonwood Creek, to the large BC Hydro developments on the Kootenay and Pend d’Oreille Rivers and the new power plants built by the Columbia Power Corporation, hydro development has long been a part of the region.

The Corra Linn Dam, located at the outlet of Kootenay Lake to the western end of the Kootenay River, was built in the 1930s

This is a also a long history of changing communities. Takaia Larsen, a History professor at Selkirk College, explains that the original Columbia River treaty negotiation forever changed transportation, work, recreation, and communication in the Arrow Lakes region. Historically people, both Indigenous and early settler communities, were more connected via waterways than highways. The impacts of the dams and flooded lands were extensive, forcing 2,300 people from their homes in the Arrow Lakes region. The dams took a heavy toll on the ecosystem, prior to construction the Columbia River was considered the world’s richest salmon river. Despite these far-reaching impacts, neither Indigenous people nor residents of the impacted communities were included in the original treaty negotiations.

However, when Treaty re-negotiations were announced in May of 2018, both the US and Canadian governments rushed to include public consultations in the process, as well as include previous consultations from the BC government in 2012-13. Announcements in April of 2019 also saw the Canadian government applauding its inclusion of the Ktunaxa, Okanagan and Secwepemc Nations who had been utterly excluded from the original 1956 Treaty. The Nations have been providing input and declaring their right to participate in decision-making through public consultations for decades.

Katrine Conroy, B.C.’s Minister Responsible for the Columbia River Treaty, stated at the announcement that “this is an important and unprecedented step in demonstrating our commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to our journey towards reconciliation.”

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Chair of the Okanagan Nation Alliance expressed gratitude for the opportunity to ensure any new Treaty addresses the mistakes of the past.

“The original Columbia River Treaty in 1964 excluded our Nations, and wreaked decades of havoc on our communities and the basin. Canada’s unprecedented decision to include us directly in the US -Canada CRT negotiations is courageous but overdue and necessary to overcome the decades of denial and disregard. We welcome the government’s bold decision here.”

However, the Nations have been given only observer status within the process. MLA Conroy’s office has stated that having Indigenous Nations participate as official observers is unprecedented. “

There is no roadmap for exactly what this will look like, but our government and Global Affairs Canada are working closely with the Ktunaxa, Okanagan and Secwepemc Nations to determine the best approach.”

What is known for certain is that representatives of these three Indigenous Nations will be in the negotiating room and will observe negotiations between Canada and the U.S. They will also be actively participating in the break-out sessions during the course of the negotiation meetings. The Canadian government is currently finalizing an agreement with First Nations formally describing their involvement during the period of negotiations more generally, as well as protocols during negotiations sessions.

“Indigenous Nations are a key part of the process, Conroy’s office states. “They have been working closely with the governments of B.C. and Canada since February 2018, to develop and refine negotiating positions and strategies. This collaboration will continue as Indigenous Nations become observers at the Canada-U.S. negotiations.”

Furthermore, the Sinixt First Nation, who held great power and influence in the region prior to colonization and settlement, do not hold observer status within the re-negotiation. The Nation had (conveniently) been declared extinct in the region by the Canadian government in 1956 – just prior to the signing of the original Treaty. This eliminated a need for government consultation with the nation, eliminating any uncertainty in the progress of the project. The Nation is now held within the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington.

As stated by Marilyn James and Taress Alexis in the book Not Extinct: Keeping the Sinixt Way, it disrupted the ability of the Nation to come back to their territory, carry out responsibilities, exercise influence, and maintain seasonal rounds.

Members of the Sinixt Nation following the BC Court of Appeals announcement confirming their rights and existence with their traditional territory in the Lakes region.

When the actions of the Treaty were implemented, the Sinixt were further removed from the landscape through folding and destruction of archaeological sites – up to 99% of the archaeological record were lost in the building of the Keenleyside Dam in Castlegar. It has also restricted the salmon from their traditional territories as well, further disrupting relationship and culture with the Sinixt Nation.

“To me, this stem of the Columbia River represents much more of what’s happening to us socially, politically, environmentally. It represents what is happened to this entire region.” ~ Marilyn James

Though the Sinixt Nation recently won a case for the BC Court of Appeals declaring their rights and existence within the Kootenay region, their inclusion in the Columbia River treaty re-negotiation must be put forward by the US government.

It is easy to see the difference between including Indigenous communities and actually listening to them. Consultation processes acrid the country that involve natural resource extraction are rife with lack of meaningful incorporation of Indigenous concerns. Even the observer status being applauded by the Canadian and BC governments is far from the nation-to-nation negotiations that would be a part of a decolonized process.

There have been moments in history where consultation processes with communities and industry have proven to be meaningful. A shining example of this is the Berger Inquiry of 1974, which was undertaken to investigate the social, environmental, and economic impact of a proposed gas pipeline that would run through the Yukon and the Mackenzie River Valley of the Northwest Territories.

Justice Berger heard testimony from diverse groups with an interest in the pipeline. Fourteen groups became full participants in the inquiry, attending all meetings and testifying before the commission. The inquiry was notable for the voice it gave to Indigenous people of the region, whose traditional territory the pipeline would traverse. Berger travelled extensively in the North in preparation for the hearings. He took his commission to all 35 communities along the Mackenzie River Valley, as well as in other cities across Canada, to gauge public reaction. In his travels he met with Indigenous leaders and citizens, non-aboriginal residents, and experts.

Berger’s report first volume was released on June 9, 1977 and followed with a second volume several months later. Titled Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland, the two-volume report highlighted the fact that while the Mackenzie Valley could be the site of the “biggest project in the history of free enterprise,” it was also home to many peoples whose lives would be immeasurably changed by the pipeline.

The result of this Inquiry and report was a ten-year moratorium to deal with critical issues—such as settling Aboriginal land claims and setting aside key conservation areas—before attempting to build the proposed pipeline. It also set the stage for many young Indigenous people of the region to feel and understand their power as leaders and partners.

One has to wonder where are Inquiries like this at a time of increasing Indigenous sovereignty, increasing inequality, and governments touting mandates and actions towards reconciliation.

Though far from the Berger Inquiry, Selkirk College and the Community Colleges of Spokane will be hosting the One River: Ethics Matter Conference at the Castlegar Campus on May 30 and 31. The sixth annual event invites those interested in new approaches to ethical governance of the river system to take part in two days of workshops, field excursions, expert panels and discussion. The conference is under the direction of the Ethics & Treaty Project, which is hosted jointly by the Center for Environmental Law & Policy and Sierra Club with support from the Columbia Institute for Water Policy. This is the first time the conference has been held in the West Kootenay, with previous gatherings taking place in Missoula, Revelstoke, Boise, Portland and Spokane.

“This is an excellent opportunity for people of our region to get a well-rounded look at the issues facing the Columbia River Basin,” says Jennie Barron, the Chair of Selkirk College’s Mir Centre for Peace and one of the members of the planning committee. “We are bringing together a diverse group of people from both sides of the border who care deeply about this river and what it means for the generations to come.”

Larsen encourages community members to participate in the process however they can, stating “the renegotiation is not going to change our region back. Archaeological sites will still be flooded, villages will still be under water – that damage has all been done and is a history impossible to overturn. However, the Columbia Basin Trust is a really important part of the region’s economy and this provides the only real form of redress for the damage caused by the original treaty.” 

Public consultations will occur throughout the region during 2019. However, given the international nature of the Treaty, as well as obvious power dynamics, how thoroughly and meaningfully community concerns and voices will

For more background information on the Columbia River Dams, please see the Touchstone Museum’s virtual exhibits.

For more information on the Berger Report, please visit https://www.pwnhc.ca/exhibitions/berger/