Indigenous Perspectives on the Columbia River Treaty

Columbia River Stamp. Source: Library and Archives Canada, R169-5

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In 1964, Canada and the United States ratified the Columbia River Treaty, an international agreement outlining water use on parts of the Columbia River and initiating the construction of four dams. Three of those dams, Mica, Duncan, and Keenleyside, are located in British Columbia and one, Libby, is in Montana. The initial purpose of these four dams was the generation of power for the rapidly growing population mostly south of the border and for flood control along the Columbia. Much has changed in the fifty-one years since the treaty’s ratification and as we enter into the ten-year-long review process for its 2024 renegotiation, it is becoming clear that the region’s Indigenous peoples, many of whom were left out of initial consultations in the 1960s, want to be part of the process.

The Columbia River Treaty contains three major stipulations: that Canada provide huge quantities of reserved water in reservoirs behind Mica, Duncan, and Keenleyside dams; that neither country will provide compensation for inundation or flood control along the Kootenay River; and that the United States compensates Canada for power generation, since at the time of ratification, the three Canadian dams allowed for the generation of energy that was used in the United States. The final stipulation resulted in what is called the Canadian Entitlement, energy returned to the Canadian market from American generation points, and the United States paid one-time fees for the completion of the Canadian dams and flood control benefits created by those dams. Population growth in southeastern BC has increased considerably since 1964 and the province’s energy needs have increased accordingly. While the population in eastern Washington state is still growing, it has slowed considerably and some areas, like the city of Spokane, have lost population in recent decades. These changes alone suggest alterations in electricity consumption that will make the Columbia River Treaty’s renegotiation more than a rubber-stamp process. In addition to these demographic changes, the consultation and accommodation requirements now in place to ensure Indigenous voices are heard about their territories and resources guarantee that the 2024 Columbia River Treaty will be a different document than its predecessor.

The Columbia River Treaty and its power generation projects, north and south of the border, affect many Indigenous people, some who have already become active in the treaty renegotiation process. The Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) is an organization of the Yakama, Nez Perce, Warm Springs, and Umatilla peoples committed to improving the fisheries of the Columbia River and its tributaries. Since the beginning of the treaty’s ten-year review process, the CRITFC has included a page on its website about the treaty and encouraging Indigenous participation in the renegotiation process because “tribes’ participation in the Columbia River Treaty 2014/2024 Review is critical for protecting tribal rights and interests, including improving ecosystem functions and ensuring favorable conditions for other tribal resources.” The CRITFC also maintains a Facebook page where it posts updates to the negotiation process, and where followers provide them with feedback and additional information.

North of the border, the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), representing the Okanagan, Upper Nicola, Westbank, Penticton, Osoyoos, Lower and Upper Similkameen bands and the Colville Confederated tribes where appropriate, has also begun engaging in the treaty renegotiation process. The ONA communicates directly with members of British Columbia’s Legislative Assembly and has made public its dissatisfaction with the existing treaty, posting on its website that the agreement “has had devastating effects on Aboriginal Title and Rights, including throughout the Arrow Lakes area which is vitally important to the ONA.” The ONA also utilizes social media, updating its Facebook page with posts about the annual Salmon Feast Honouring the Sacredness of the River and with updates on the treaty renegotiation process, in addition to community events and news.

Indigenous peoples aren’t the only groups engaging with the public via social media about the Columbia River Treaty renegotiation process. The BC government has launched Twitter and Facebook pages to solicit feedback on the review process and update its followers, albeit on a less-than-regular basis. Both the BC provincial and United States federal (through the Army Corps of Engineers) governments have created websites around the review process, though neither are all that interactive. Neither government appears too keen on discussing Indigenous interests in treaty renegotiations on their websites, but there is little information to be found there at the moment. This may change as the review process continues.

Regardless of governmental engagement (or the apparent lack thereof) with Indigenous peoples at this stage in the Columbia River Treaty’s renegotiation, groups like the ONA and the CRITFC have begun educating the public about Indigenous rights and expectations on the Columbia River. As the treaty review process progresses, expect Indigenous voices like those of the ONA and CRITFC to be engaged in the discussion of what a new Columbia River Treaty will look like and how it will be reimagined to include the region’s many native peoples.

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Stacy Nation-Knapper is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University. Her research focuses on the history and memory of the fur trade in the Columbia River Plateau.

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