Indigenous input has been a key element in developing Canada’s priorities for renegotiating the terms of the Columbia River Treaty with the United States.
The Ktunaxa Nation, Syilx/Okanagan Nation and Secwepemc Nation joined the treaty talks as observers two years ago. Beyond the negotiating table between Canada and the United States, Indigenous input has added an important context to modernizing treaty terms, especially given the lack of consultation with Basin residents and communities when the agreement was first ratified and implemented decades ago.
Provincial and federal officials, along with Indigenous representatives from the three First Nations, provided a virtual town hall update Wednesday on the state of the negotiations that have been ongoing since the latest round of talks began roughly a year ago when Canada presented a formal proposal to the U.S.
“The comprehensive Canadian proposal covered a range of issues, including of course, the two key main issues of the existing treaty, which remain important issues — that means flood risk management and power generation,” said Sylvain Fabi, Canada’s chief negotiator for the Columbia River Treaty.
“But an issue that we have been pushing really hard for in our work with the U.S., and it was included in our proposal, is a dimension on ecosystem function and also we’ve included, in the things that we want to discuss and negotiate, is Libby co-ordination and gaining a more substantive role for Canada in that Libby Dam co-ordination.”
The inclusion of ecosystem function as a third element to the negotiations has been an Indigenous-led effort in collaboration with the provincial and federal governments to conduct research and recognize ecosystem values and Indigenous cultural values in Canada’s negotiating process.
Ecosystem function is defined as including all aquatic, wetland, and riparian ecosystems impacted by the dams on the Columbia River in Canada and the United States.
Both Fabi and Kathy Eichenberger, B.C.’s lead on the Canadian Columbia River Treaty Negotiation Delegation, also noted the negotiating team’s commitment to aligning Canadian proposals with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
Acknowledging the past
The Columbia River Treaty is a water management agreement ratified in 1964 that provides for flood-control management downstream of the Columbia River and power generation.
The agreement facilitated the construction of the Mica Dam, Keenleyside Dam and Duncan Dam on the Canadian side, as well as the Libby Dam in Montana.
Those construction of those dams also created reservoirs that flooded over 110,000 hectares, impacting Basin residents and Indigenous communities, all without any consultation from senior levels of government.
It’s a point of contention that remains to this day, according to Nathan Matthew with the Secwepemc Nation.
“One of the first perspectives that we have is that the creation or signing of the original Columbia River Treaty and the implementation of the terms with respect to the building of the dams and the changes in the water courses comprised the biggest infringement on our way of life or the rights that we have to exist in the Basin,” Matthew said.
The three Indigenous nations are working together to take a leadership role in ecosystem research and cultural value research in order to restore damage from impacts caused by the original treaty implementation.
There is also an Indigenous-led effort underway to bring back salmon to the upper Columbia River through the Columbia River Salmon Reintroduction Initiative, a collaboration between the Ktunaxa Nation, Syilx/Okanagan Nation and Secwepemc Nation, as well as British Columbia and Canada.
That collaboration became official in 2019, through a three-year agreement to study ways of reintroducing salmon back to the Basin.
“We’re trying to bring the salmon back into the upper Columbia and ensure that we have a sustainable run, hopefully in the millions, in the future,” said Jay Johnson, with the Syilx/Okanagan Nation. “We’re working together to identify what kind of technical work needs to occur for that to happen and to ensure we’ve got the right information to prove that the feasibility of this is sound, just, appropriate and sustainable.”
Bill Green, with the Ktunaxa Nation, added that eight guiding principles and interests relating to modernizing the Columbia River Treaty came out of a two-year internal consultation process a decade ago, noting that “reasonable to good progress” is being made towards achieving all of them.
For ecosystem function research, Green said there are 13 different studies underway covering topics such as reservoir, water and terrestrial productivity, floodplain, riparian and wetland systems and aquatics. Those studies will include performance measures that will model how operations at various reservoirs will impact values such as the ecosystem, hydro power and recreation, among others.
“This has been a very different process that engages all five governments, engages a wide range of interests and it’s hard work, but it has been collaborative and very effective in that regard,” said Green.
Additionally, representatives from the Columbia River Treaty Local Governments Committee drew attention to a series of recently updated recommendations that include less water level fluctuation in reservoirs, equitable benefit-sharing, Canadian input on Libby Dam operations, and increased local and Indigenous government involvement in implementation decisions.
Negotiations moving forward
Negotiations between Canada and the United States to modernize the treaty began in 2018.
The agreement, which was ratified in 1964, is an agreement that has no end date, however a 10-year notice of termination must be given before 2024.
Fabi says the Canadian delegation hasn’t had a response from the U.S. side of the negotiations since putting forward a formal proposal last June.
However, he said that there was a recent bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden that established a roadmap and shared priorities on topics such as climate change, COVID-19 response, global health and security.
Fabi adds that he has kept in close contact with his American counterpart throughout the pandemic even as both sides haven’t formally been at the negotiating table in eight months.
While specific terms of the negotiations are confidential, Fabi says the U.S. is taking issue with the amount of financial compensation it makes to Canada from power generation benefits.
“They’ve said so many times, I’m not divulging any secrets, which I wouldn’t do because there’s always an element of keeping the negotiations between ourselves as much as possible,” Fabi said, “but there is a desire for them to reduce what they compensate Canada with in terms of the power benefits they get.”
Indeed, a group of three U.S. lawmakers petitioned former President Donald Trump to terminate the commercial and power co-ordination provisions of the Columbia River Treaty in December.
“The United States has been unfairly burdened by the outdated Columbia River Treaty, and it is long past time to stop the wealth transfer from our constituents to Canada,” said the bipartisan group of lawmakers in a statement.
“The existing Treaty punishes Northwest electric ratepayers, forcing them to pay for benefits far in excess to the value provided to the United States. With good faith negotiations at a standstill, we urge President Trump to take a strong stance and issue the notice of intent to terminate the power co-ordination provisions of the Treaty.”
When the treaty was ratified, the U.S. agreed to prepay Canada $64 million over 60 years for flood control operations as well as half of the incremental power potential that could be produced because of the Columbia River’s new flow regimes.
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