Columbia River Treaty negotiators stop in Revelstoke

Local residents questioned CRT negotiators on topics such as the absence of First Nations at the negotiating table, agricultural interests, salmon, and international relations at a June 19 Columbia River Treaty open house, one of nine meetings slated to take place in Columbia Basin communities this June.

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Kathy Eichenberger, the executive director of the Columbia River Treaty Review team and a member of the Canadian negotiating party, fields a question from local resident Francis Maltby during an open house hosted by the province to inform residents of the Columbia Basin of the status of the renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty. Talks between the U.S. and Canada got underway in Washington, D.C., on May 29. About 50 local residents were in attendance on June 19 at Revelstoke's community centre and the question and answer period lasted roughly 45 minutes. The next meetings are scheduled for August 15 and 16 and will take place in a yet to be determined location in the basin. Photo: Jake Sherman/Revelstoke Mountaineer

Provincial government officials held a Columbia River Treaty consultation open house in Revelstoke on June 19, part of an ongoing tour of Canadian Columbia River Basin communities to discuss the status of the renegotiation. About 50 residents attended the open house.

The discussions happened amid ongoing uncertainty about the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), dwindling international relations between the U.S and Canada, U.S President Donald Trump’s imposition of tariffs on American aluminum and steel, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plans to impose retaliatory tariffs on the U.S. starting July 1. This changing international context casts a new light on renegotiation of the over 50-year-old Columbia River Treaty — an international agreement between the U.S and Canada that governs the hydro electric power generation and storage reservoir levels of some 14 dams along the main stem of the Columbia River.

Despite the continuing animosity between the two countries’ leaders, Senior Policy Advisor at Global Affairs Canada, and CRT negotiating team member Stephen Gluck, said the first meeting between the U.S. and Canada was untarnished by the ongoing spat over trade relations between the U.S. and Canada. He called the meetings in Washington D.C., “collaborative and cooperative,” and said they focused on the spirit of partnership that has traditionally characterized the relationship between the U.S. and Canada.

Kathy Eichenberger, treaty negotiator and executive director of the Columbia River Treaty Review team, said the Canadian negotiators currently do not think the economic benefits of hydro electric power generation are shared equitably between the two countries, with the U.S. benefiting more than Canadians across the basin. She said the Canadian negotiators will be standing up for Canadian economic security interests, balancing those interests with recreation and tourism, and ecosystem restoration.

“We believe the benefits are not shared equitably right now,” said Eichenberger. “We want to make sure the benefits are distributed equally. If there is a deal on the table that we feel is unfair, we can submit a termination notice. We can give a 10-year termination notice.”

Meanwhile, American negotiators are sure to push for a reconsideration of the “Canadian Entitlement,” also known as downstream benefits, which provide B.C. with between $250 million to $350 million a year of electrical power in exchange for storing water in reservoirs which can be used to control hydroelectric power generation and prevent flooding downstream.

Noticeably absent from the negotiating table during the ongoing talks are First Nations, who were not included during the initial negotiations in the 1950s and ’60s. One of the indigenous groups who claim Revelstoke as their ancestral territory, the Sinixt, were declared “extinct” under the Indian Act in 1956 by the Canadian government before their burial grounds and traditional territory were flooded by dam construction that was dictated by the terms of the treaty.

Fielding a question from resident Giles Shearing on the fact that First Nations have been absent from the negotiating table, Gluck said the negotiations haven’t been impacted by the lack of direct involvement, and that the information collected during a lengthy consultation process with indigenous communities has been brought to the table.

Residents also pushed Eichenberger, a representative of the province, and Gluck, a representative of the federal government, on agricultural interests, ecosystem values, food security, salmon restoration, flood control, and international relations.

Following the question and answer period those in attendance broke off into smaller groups where they brainstormed before presenting their findings to the negotiators. They asked negotiators for a clear breakdown of the fiscal benefits the U.S. is getting versus what the province of B.C. and its residents receive, raised concerns about the impacts to fish in local waters, food security, and floated ideas about granting that might support innovative farming.

After hearing residents concerns Eichenberger said the idea of opening an agricultural trust fund for the basin had been discussed.

She also said negotiators will return to Revelstoke to keep local residents informed on the status of the negotiations, saying it could be years before a deal is reached.

“This is not going to happen overnight,” said Eichenberger. “But we are committed on coming back to you before an agreement is made so you can have a say this time.”

The next negotiating meeting is scheduled for August 15 and 16 and will take place at a yet to be determined location in the Columbia Basin. Eichenberger and Gluck said that it was important to the Canadian negotiating party that the next meeting take place somewhere in the basin.

The meeting in Revelstoke was one of nine public forums, which will be held across the Columbia Basin this month.

 

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Jake, 26, is a graduate student in the history faculty at the University of Victoria and a reporter at the Revelstoke Mountaineer. His research has looked at counterculture and alternative media in the Pacific Northwest and Jewish identity in post Holocaust Central and Eastern Europe. Got a lead on a story? Feel free to drop Jake a line at, Jake@revelstokemountaineer.com