It’s kind of like a giant poker game.
Before the U.S. and Canadian governments can sit down to renegotiate the Columbia River Treaty in the coming years, they’ll have to do multi-faceted preparations with a variety of different regional, provincial, federal and First Nations groups, juggling conflicting priorities and taking stock of who’s holding what cards.
And it could go a whole variety of ways, especially now that the U.S. has elected Donald Trump.
“It could go on for years and years.”
At its most basic, the CRT is an agreement between countries in which the U.S. compensates Canada for the privilege of damming the river north of the border to provide flood flood control, hydro-power efficiency and water for irrigation and other consumptive use in the U.S. Approximately 15 per cent of the Columbia River watershed is in Canada. But there were a number of things not addressed by the original treaty, signed in 1964, including First Nations rights, environmental issues, wildlife habitat, and the salmon fishery.
Since the treaty was signed, three dams were built in Canada: Duncan, Mica and Keenleyside.
According to the treaty, either Canada or the U.S. can mutually agree to change it any time. They can terminate most of the provisions any time after Sept. 16, 2024, as long as ten year’s notice is given.
And one of the most important things to address is the existence of the Sinixt, according to Pearkes.
“The Sinixt extinction issue flows right into the Columbia River Treaty process in my opinion because how can we be talking about the main stem of the Columbia River without being honest about who’s territory it was for thousands of years?” asked Pearkes.
And if Kootenay residents want a say, the time to act is now, according to Nelson Mayor Deb Kozak and RDCK chair Karen Hamling. The pair traveled to Ottawa at the beginning of December to emphasize their stance: local governments must be consulted before decisions are reached.
“Basin residents and First Nations weren’t consulted before the treaty was signed in the 1960s. We’ve worked … for over five years to make sure that doesn’t happen in the future,” said Kozak in a news release.
Kozak was relieved to hear that federal and provincial interests were considered intertwined and Hamling was encouraged by the results of the meetings.
“Everyone we met with was very interested, attentive and appreciative of the opportunity to speak directly with us about the initial and ongoing impacts and benefits that people in the Basin experience from the dam and reservoir operations that are authorized by the treaty,” Hamling said in the news release.
Parliamentary Secretary Pamela Goldsmith-Jones agreed the conversation went well.
“It is very helpful to have local level expertise be able to inform our federal strategy,” she said of the meetings, which also included Kootenay-Columbia MP Wayne Stetski and South Okanagan-West Kootenay MP Richard Cannings.
That local input has been sorely lacking in the past according to Pearkes.
“It’s part of a pattern in Canadian history that centralized governments made major decisions outside the control of local people. Wholesale decisions were made where local people had no idea their valley was slated to be flooded in an international agreement until after the ink was dry.”
The way she see it: “Decisions were made behind residents’ backs, and they were lied to.”
In total the treaty caused the displacement of over 2,000 residents of more than a dozen communities while flooding and destroying archeological sites and destroying once-flourishing fisheries.
Pearkes said the treaty in its current state “virtually ignores the water as an ecosystem”, and doesn’t take into account things like fish habitats, First Nations rights or riparian restoration. She’s especially mournful about the salmon, who haven’t had access to the Canadian stretch of the river since their route from the ocean was dammed.
She was buoyed by news that local government officials went to Ottawa, but asked “when are they going to come to us?”
And former MLA Corky Evans agrees. He’d like to see the treaty significantly overhauled.
“In the last 60 years there has only ever been two things that are allowed to be negotiated, hydro electric value and flood control, and what I would like to see is the countries agree that the stabilization of the ecosystem and the whole river basin from Golden to Portland be managed for stability and ecosystem recovery.”
He said residents in Nakusp feel like they live in “a bath tub,” because the water level varies so wildly.
“This time around people have been invited to express an opinion, at least, which I think is progress no matter what happens.”
Hamling and Kozak are members of the BC CRT Local Governments’ Committee, which was created for the express purpose of ensuring local consultation is involved in future decisions. Pearkes is urging them to consider the environmental implications of the renegotiation.
“We need to keep in mind the basic fundamentals: the health of the water, and the health and vitality of the local people,” said Pearkes.
“We need to reconcile, we need to figure out what are we giving back? What are we taking away? Have we healed the wounds inflicted by the first treaty? I don’t think we have. Especially when the local indigenous people are still ‘extinct’.”
Pearkes won’t be satisfied until Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally comes to tour the Columbia.
“Let’s get noisy about this so Ottawa knows people actually live here. We’ve got to get Trudeau out here in rubber boots, shin-deep in muck, so he can see exactly what it is we’re talking about here.”