British Columbia

B.C. Indigenous leaders invited to observe Columbia River Treaty talks

Almost a year into the Columbia River Treaty negotiations between Canada and the United States, the federal government has invited B.C. Indigenous leaders to observe the process. Indigenous leaders were not invited to the table when the treaty was first signed in 1964.

'It's just a small step, but it's significant'

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.)

Almost a year into the Columbia River Treaty negotiations between Canada and the United States, the federal government has invited B.C. Indigenous leaders to observe the process.

The federal government announced the invitation last Friday. 

Indigenous leaders were not invited to the table before the treaty was first signed in 1964, and Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs was outraged at the lack of invitation when treaty re-negotiations began last June.

Wayne Christian, tribal chief of the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council and one of the tribal chiefs of the Secwepemc Nation, will be representing the Secwepemc Nation at upcoming meetings in June.

"I think it's very significant, that what this does is put us in the room with Canada so we can observe the treaty that they signed with the U.S. in 1964," said Christian.

"The Indigenous nations are there with the Canadian delegation, but also hearing for ourselves what is actually going on in the room."

The delegation has been having monthly meetings with the federal government over the past year where they educate officials about issues that matter to them, including the significance of the Columbia River Treaty, said Christian. 

"It's an opportunity to work with the Bureau of Foreign Affairs [and] actually educate them on a nation-to-nation process."

The delegation first met with Foreign Affairs minister Chrsystia Freeland in December.

Christian said they're "optimistic" now that they have been invited to come to negotiations, however, he points out it's still a small step.  

"But it's significant because actually being involved and having the minister respond to us in the way she did since December ... she actually moved the agenda and I think it's very significant when you have her bureaucrats really understanding that this is what needs to be done," said Christian.

'No surprises'

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

Being an observer will give Christian and other Indigenous leaders the chance to be with the Canadian delegation and talk about issues and concerns in advance of table negotiations, he told Chris Walker, host of CBC's Daybreak South

"So there's no surprises on our side in Canada when we go to the table, and I think that's what's significant about this," said Christian.

"Then we can begin to really address the issues we see as important, which is salmon and ecosystem function over the river because the river is so significant to our Indigenous nations in the Interior."

Top of mind for Christian is the issue of increasing the dwindling salmon population.

"I think the biggest impediment in that whole process is the dams all along the system. So how do we bring [the salmon] back to the area? Because it was rich in salmon," said Christian. 

"We have to understand the grand dams are part of the Columbia River system, but it's the one [aspect] that has the most impact," said Christian. 

With files from Daybreak South

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