US, Canada urged to ‘right historic wrongs’ in Columbia River Treaty

The Duncan Dam was one of four dams constructed under the Columbia River Treaty signed by Canada, the province of British Columbia and the United States. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Duncan Dam was one of four dams constructed under the Columbia River Treaty signed by Canada, the province of British Columbia and the United States. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Published September 15, 2014

Religious and indigenous leaders from Canada and the United States today urged U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to begin negotiations that would “right historic wrongs” and promote “water stewardship” in the Columbia River Treaty.

In 1964, the federal government and the B.C. provincial government signed a treaty with the United States to jointly manage water resources along the Columbia River Basin, which stretches 2,000 kilometres from the Rocky Mountains of B.C. through four U.S. states. During the 50-year period, dams were created for hydroelectric power and flood prevention. The treaty-which religious and native leaders say ignores the rights of Columbia Basin tribes in the U.S. and the First Nations in Canada-is up for renegotiations. The treaty has no specified end date, but either country can unilaterally terminate most of its provisions as early as Sept. 16, 2024, provided that at least 10 years’ notice is given, which would have been Sept. 16, 2014.

In letters sent to Obama and Harper, 14 religious leaders and seven indigenous leaders included a Declaration of Ethics as “a foundation for negotiations.” Based on the Columbia River Pastoral Letter issued in 1999 by U.S. Roman Catholic bishops, the declaration urges both Canada and the U.S. to “work together to develop and implement an integrated spiritual, social and ecological vision for our watershed home.” It identifies 48 principles for modernizing the treaty, including respecting indigenous rights and “protecting and restoring healthy ecosystems with abundant fish and wildlife populations.”

The Declaration “speaks very clearly of how important and critical it is for there to be justice to correct the many years of injustice to the Native people of the Columbia Basin, including the First Nations of Canada,” said Matt Wynne, Chairman of the Upper Columbia United Tribes. The coming together of religious and indigenous leaders “underscores that the future of the Columbia River is not just a political, but a moral issue,” he said. “Native Americans suffered the greatest losses and the most damage as a result of not being included in the first negotiations leading up to the 1964 Treaty. It helps keep my spirit strong knowing that our struggle for justice and stewardship of the river carries so much faith-based support.”

The letters also noted that 17 multi-faith prayer vigils have been held in August along the Columbia River urging the need to restore salmon runs that have been blocked by the reservoirs. (The Anglican Church of Canada’s National Indigenous Bishop Mark MacDonald was among the signatories to the letters.)

“Our tribal and First Nations communities in both Canada and the United States have fundamentally relied on salmon as our life source,” said a statement by Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, chair of the Okanagan Nation Alliance. “As elders have stated, ‘We are salmon people.’ ” He noted that construction of the dams not only had a grave impact on fisheries but also “devastated our lands” and destroyed culture and communities. Dams flooded river valleys and wildlife habitat and forced thousands of people from their homes and ancestral fishing sites, he said.

MacDonald said “a modernized treaty for the Columbia River is an opportunity for all peoples of Columbia-and the great system of life which is the river ecosystem-to walk through to a new day of justice and well-being.” Restoring the river back to health and returning salmon to their ancestral spawning waters “would transform discussions of the environment, indigenous rights and the future of sustainable life around the world,” he added. “The churches, who have always rhetorically aspired to walk with indigenous peoples, have a chance, in this opportunity, to walk with indigenous peoples in a movement towards just and sustainable life for all.”

Both Ottawa and Washington have not stated their positions on the renegotiation of the treaty. The B.C. government has announced its support for a continuation of the treaty but said it would “seek improvements within its existing framework.” In a press statement, they said that it recognizes salmon migration on the Columbia River was eliminated by the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam, 26 years prior to treaty ratification, and concludes that the restoration of fish passage and habitat should be the responsibility of each country.According to the statement, “The new treaty must also consider issues around ecosystems and climate change, while maintaining the flexibility to adapt to evolving economic, social and environmental circumstances in each country.”


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