Experts gather at UVic on Indigenous rights and river treaty

- Laura Brandes

Columbia River
Columbia River Gorge. Photo: Cacophony, Wikimedia Commons.

How do two neighbouring countries tackle vital questions on the renegotiation of an international water agreement involving important issues such as conservation, river health, flood control, hydropower generation and Indigenous engagement for a 1,930-kilometre river in the heart of the Pacific Northwest?

This spring, approximately 200 people converged on our campus to discuss important topics surrounding the future of the Columbia River Treaty and the importance of Indigenous roles and responsibilities.

Creating a modern treaty

The treaty, now more than 50 years old, will expire in 2024.

On May 28, one day ahead of the start of formal negotiations between the US and Canada, the University of Victoria’s POLIS Project on Ecological Governance and UVic’s Centre for Global Studies, in partnership with the Canadian Water Resources Association (CWRA), hosted the Columbia River Treaty Symposium.

Part of the CWRA National Conference in Victoria, it brought together participants from both sides of the border including Indigenous people, representatives from Indigenous organizations and governments, scientists and academics, as well as representatives from BC Hydro and policy makers from all levels of government.

Its main objectives were to identify key science and technical issues, raise awareness and explore the future. Canadian and American experts and professionals—many with decades of experience working on these topics—shared their knowledge and expertise, including options and opportunities for a modernized treaty.

To help drive discussion, the POLIS Project provided support materials based on its ongoing transboundary governance and international water law research.

Indigenous roles and responsibilities, as part of modern governance of the Columbia River Treaty and the broader basin, were also a deliberate and primary focus of the UVic symposium.

Taking up the challenge

The bilateral negotiations between the two countries have stimulated an initial flurry of responses from observers in Canada and the US. Most of these comments have focused on the potential conflict and disagreement between the parties, but a modernized treaty could offer significant benefits.

Controversially, both Canadian and US governments failed to formally include Indigenous representation as part of the negotiating teams or positions.
Oliver M. Brandes, co-director of UVic's POLIS Project on Ecological Governance and associate director of UVic's Centre for Global Studies

Symposium participants took up the challenge of offering solutions around the themes of reconciling ecosystem function with hydropower and flood risk management, and reconciling Indigenous rights.

Splatsin First Nation Chief Kukpi7 Wayne Christian spoke about the ongoing political challenges faced by Indigenous peoples whose traditional territories fall within the Canadian portion of the Columbia Basin (the Syilx, the Ktunaxa and the Secwepemc peoples).

Chief Wayne Christian talking into a microphone
Chief (Kukpi7) Wayne Christian offers a Secwepemc perspective on the treaty. Photo: Jodie Walsh.

He said, “The foundation of who we are and our interaction with this specific agreement is based on our laws and the fact that we have not ceded nor surrendered our lands, resources or our people.”

The symposium highlighted that the existing treaty is too narrowly focused—as it only addresses power production and flood control—and confirmed that more innovative and flexible approaches will be required. Improving the balance of benefits from flood control, energy systems management and ecosystem maintenance or restoration will require new approaches to future water storage and release regimes.

And there is also urgency around the need to reconcile both the rights of Indigenous peoples, which were ignored in the original treaty, and the interests of all citizens in the maintenance of healthy and functioning ecosystems.

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Keywords: international, Indigenous, water, research, Centre for Global Studies, POLIS Project

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