British Columbia

Lack of Indigenous voices at Columbia River Treaty talks 'total slap in the face'

Indigenous people were not involved in the original treaty and some hoped the renegotiation would be different.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs calls exclusion 'act of treachery'

The Duncan Dam, in the Purcell Mountains, is one of three B.C. dams built as part of the Columbia River Treaty, signed with the U.S. in 1964. In return for building the Mica, Keenleyside and Duncan dams, which provide water storage for power generation in the U.S., B.C. is entitled to half the additional power generated because of the water storage. (Government of B.C.)

The leader of a B.C. First Nation says it's a "total slap in the face" that Indigenous peoples will not be at the table when Canada and the United States renegotiate the Columbia River Treaty.

Chief Wayne Christian called it "quite disturbing" that the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council and two other B.C. Nations won't be involved in next week's discussions.

"With the prime minister's words of 'nation to nation' in the era of reconciliation and him talking to the world and the United Nations and the implementation of [the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples] and all of those things, he's basically been lying to the world," Christian told Daybreak South host Chris Walker.

The UN declaration, also known an UNDRIP, states governments can't approve projects that affect Indigenous territory without their "free, prior and informed consent." Ottawa has pledged to uphold the principle of the UN declaration.

"He's saying things that are not true," Christian said of Trudeau. "He could've shown that he could actually involve us in a process that is nation-to-nation but he chose not to."

Water is released through the outlet tubes at Grand Coulee Dam, Wash. The dam was expanded in the '70s to take advantage of extra water storage provided by Canada through the Columbia River Treaty. (The Associated Press)

The Columbia River Treaty, signed in 1964, created huge reservoirs in British Columbia and Montana. It set out terms for flood control and hydroelectric dam operations and is set to expire in 2024.

Christian says it is a "complete surprise" not to be involved in the renegotiation process but called the snub "business as usual" in terms of Canada's dealings with Indigenous peoples.

However, the office of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said in an email that conversations with First Nations "will absolutely continue throughout the duration of these negotiations." 

"The federal government leads and is responsible for any and all international negotiations, such as in this case," the email said.‎ "The government has had regular engagement with First Nations since November 2016 and has engaged in consultations with First Nations on a monthly basis since February 2018 in anticipation of these negotiations."

The government statement also noted that the government has put aside money to ensure there are funds for First Nations' travel and participation in the consultations throughout the negotiations.

U.S. Indigenous Nation also upset

Indigenous peoples were not involved in the original treaty, and Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs called their exclusion this time "an absolute act of treachery."

Michael E. Marchand, chairperson of the Washington state-based Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, was equally critical of the U.S. excluding his Nation and 14 others from the negotiations.

"The U.S. government has routinely adopted policies and made decisions which were destructive to the health of the Columbia, disastrous for its fish, and detrimental to Columbia River Basin Tribal cultures and traditions," Marchand said in a release.

"This river was the centre of Native trade and commerce, and a touchstone for our cultures and traditions.

"It is unfortunate that Tribal Nations, who know the Columbia better than anyone, are excluded from the treaty re-negotiation process."

Christian says B.C. First Nations plan to meet and discuss possible options for recourse, but he's not sure what those options are.

"We're not going anywhere," he stated. "We're going to actually regroup with a plan and a process that will hold Canada accountable for the words that are being said internationally."

Negotiations begin May 29 in Washington, D.C.

Listen to the full interview with Wayne Christian:

With files from Bob Keating and CBC Radio's Daybreak South


  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the office of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland did not respond to requests for comment. In fact, Freeland's office did email a statement and the story has been updated to include the response.
    May 28, 2018 11:19 AM PT
  • An earlier version of this story said the Columbia River Treaty created large reservoirs in several U.S. states. In fact, the only U.S. state with a Columbia River Treaty dam is Montana. The story has also been updated to clarify the details of the treaty's expiration.
    May 28, 2018 9:28 PM PT