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"There's a special place in hell for any foreign leader that engages in bad faith diplomacy”
— Peter Navarro, trade advisor to President Donald Trump
Earlier of this year, many Canadians reacted with alarm and no small amount of disgust to this quote from a key Trump lapdog. Hearing a Trump underling state that the Prime Minister of Canada is bound for hell due to his bad faith negotiations was beyond the pale.
But the truth of the matter is that I agree with Navarro. One need only look at how the Canadian government has negotiated with Ktunaxa Nation to understand bad faith diplomacy and there is no clearer example than the renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty.
Recently, the governments of Canada and the United States announced their intention to renegotiate the Columbia River Treaty. The Treaty is an example of the post war accord that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau evokes in his framing of Canada-U.S. relations as “the most successful alliance in the modern world.” It is a quote so filled with maple syrup it may as well be a Molson's beer commercial.
Underneath the surface, the “successful alliance” is predicated on the subjugation of Indigenous peoples and the denial of our rights and title. This denial is devastating to our territory, resources and culture.
In 1961 Canada and the United States agreed on the principles of the Columbia River Treaty. Canada would allow dams on the upper Columbia for flood control and power generation on the American portion of the river. In return, Canada would receive over $300 million USD in lieu of the first 30 years of downstream benefits. After B.C. Premier W.A.C. Bennett raised a ruckus, and established BC Hydro, British Columbia was given $300 million CAD from the feds. The deal was done.
However, in the 1960s Indigenous peoples were not part of the political calculus. Our communities were not consulted or compensated for the impacts of the Treaty.
The decision to exclude Indigenous peoples from the Columbia River Treaty renegotiation is an “act of absolute treachery.” Article by @Skink00ts via @NatObserver
The Columbia River Treaty effects the territory of the Ktunaxa, Sylix (Okanagan) and Secwepemc peoples. These governments collectively represent Indigenous peoples in over twenty communities through the Ktunaxa Nation Council, Okanagan Nation Alliance and the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council.
It is important to note that Canada does not have a treaty with Ktunaxa, Sylix or Secwepemc all of whom have significant rights and title throughout their territories.
In response to the announced renegotiation of the Treaty, Ktunaxa, Sylix and Secwepemc issued an unprecedented communique that uniformly opposed the negotiations occurring without Indigenous peoples’ representation.
Having Ktunaxa, Sylix and Secwepemc unite against the government of Canada on the Columbia River Treaty is significant.
When Indigenous peoples are united, Canada cannot play the “overlapping territories” card nor may it utter the oft used phrase “First Nations are divided.” When Indigenous peoples are united, the political and legal conceit of uncertainty, which allows colonization to flourish, quickly erodes. Without the convenience of such conceit, Trudeau’s sunny ways reconciliation has no play with these tribes.
Just listen to the reaction. Ktunaxa Nation lamented the “profound losses to our culture and way of life” while Secwepemc Nation Tribal Council left no uncertainty about the consequence of exclusion being “another of Prime Minister Trudeau’s lies to the world about reconciliation.”
So what are the impacts of the Treaty? The ONA, SNTC and KNC say that “the CRT has had massive impacts on the Territory of the three Nations including; the desecration of sacred, village and burial sites, the loss of fish populations and harvest areas and; the turning of a vibrant river into industrial water storage reservoirs.”
That is a significant list of grievances. Let’s unpack each of them one at a time.
Loss of village and burial sites
The loss of sacred village and burial sites is an impact as profound as it is deeply personal and painful. This is where our families and loved ones are buried throughout our territories. These are places where we lived, loved, fished, danced and died for thousands and thousands of years. When Canada forced us onto reserves our movement was restricted by the Indian Agent. Our connection to these places declined from intimate familiarity to stories to dreams. Now, many of these dreams of ourselves are lost under the weight of 15 million acres of water storage.
This is not abstract, nor hyperbole. This is the truth of the Columbia River Treaty, the story of Canada and British Columbia. While some people take us at our word, many require “evidence” that we have lived in our territories since time immemorial. Much of that evidence is archaeological and a significant portion of those archaeological sites are now submerged due to the Columbia River Treaty and associated dams. It is these sites that provide the proof of Aboriginal title that the Canadian legal system recognizes — proof that is deep beneath the waves, legally or otherwise.
The loss of fish populations and harvested areas
At the heart of this issue is the loss of salmon. Ktunaxa are swaq̓mu ʔaqǂsmaknik — a salmon people. For generations, we Ktunaxa knew salmon not only as a staple in our diets but as a central role in our culture and worldview. Salmon are in our stories and legends. Salmon, were central to our harvesting practices. The very first instance of suyupi in our territory comes from David Thompson’s expedition in 1807, and he was concerned with survival by way of harvesting salmon.
Indigenous peoples of the Columbia River currently undertake significant efforts towards salmon restoration. In the early 1990s Secwepemc, Ktunaxa and Sylix formed the Canadian Columbia River Intertribal Fisheries Commission (CCRIFC) to restore anadromous (ocean migrating) salmon throughout the Columbia River system and to advance collective rights to the region. This year will mark the eighth annual Salmon Festival near Invermere, B.C.. It is a public event that brings Secwepemc, Ktunaxa and settler peoples together to promote salmon and salmon restoration at the headwaters of the Columbia River. Most interesting are the salmon restoration efforts of the Okanagan Nation Alliance which has seen significant numbers of sockeye salmon returning to spawn in the Okanagan River.
The Columbia River Treaty renegotiation represents a once in a sixty year opportunity to centre swaq̓mu (salmon) in the Columbia River.
Canada’s rejection of Indigenous representation in the Columbia River Treaty renegotiation is a rejection of salmon restoration. And there can be no doubt that Canada is excluding Indigenous peoples.
As the May 2018 communique from the Sylix, Secwepemc and Ktunaxa says, “Indigenous Nations have been excluded since 1964 when the CRT was ratified and are now being told that they will continue to be marginalized and shut out of decisions directly affecting their title and rights. This decision is blatantly inconsistent with the Government’s commitments to advance reconciliation.”
In an era of reconciled misdirection, it is the land itself that tells the truth, exposing truths buried under the waves.
Turning a vibrant river into industrial water storage
It is difficult to understand much less appreciate the impact that the Treaty has had on the waters of the Columbia River Basin. Hundreds of acres of shoreline have been lost around Kootenay Lake due to the dams of the Columbia River Treaty. The entire shoreline of Kootenay Lake is radically different than it was just a few generations ago. Arrow Lakes was once two lakes separated by nearly twenty kilometers. Koocanusa Lake was not a lake at all but a part of the Kootenay River, where the river was once so low it could be waded through from one side to the next. Where are those stories now? Where is that memory? The entire view of the territory has changed to something that our ancestors would find hard to recognize and yet we see it as normal. The salmon in our blood tells us otherwise.
The loss is not just felt to Ktunaxa, Sylix or Secwepemc. Their communique states that ‘All residents of the Columbia River Basin continue to live with the devastating impacts of the CRT and its destructive legacy.” Thousands of acres of arable land have been lost to the Columbia River Treaty from Castlegar to Skookumchuk. If I have learned one thing from Canada it is that there are few things more sacred to the settler mind than that of the holy sanctity of the farmer.
Lies, damn lies and clean energy
In closing, I thought I would offer some comments on the "clean energy" claims around Site C and the obnoxious solidarity between B.C. Premier John Horgan and BC Hydro.
One of the main buzzwords of hydro development in BC is "clean energy." BC Hydro touts itself for generating nearly 100 per cent “clean energy.” However, claims of clean energy are founded on the submerging of our communities, the erasure of our past and the extirpation of a primary food source. It is Orwellian doublespeak that submerges colonial history and power into a neat, self-serving soundbite. Clean energy is a dirty business whose sin is only made worse by naming it clean. A claim built on the grounds of Indigenous erasure.
Site C, on the Peace River, is the largest ever public expenditure in the history of British Columbia and it is underwritten by the industrial water storage of the Columbia River. In the 1960s, the province took the Columbia River Treaty money and spent it on hydroelectric development on the Peace River.
BC Hydro would not exist without the desecration of the Columbia River. No Columbia River Treaty, no BC Hydro. And no Peace River hydro development, including the Site C dam.
When the Treaty’s renegotiation was announced by Global Affairs Minister by Chrystia Freeland the provincial government was asked whether it would support the call for Indigenous representation in the Treaty’s renegotiation. Unsurprisingly, the Horgan government stated its support for Trudeau’s government — a very clean agreement for a dirty business.
But of course, this has always been the case. With the approval of Site C, Premier Horgan’s government is simply an orange hued version of W.A.C. Bennett’s dam-building forefathers.
Horgan and Trudeau can easily dismiss Indigenous peoples from the Columbia River Treaty because settler society believes the lies of clean energy and largely accepts the loss of salmon from the headwaters of the Columbia River as a given.
One might ask where is the environmentalist vanguard on this issue? Why aren’t there suyupi dangling from the Columbia River dams demanding justice? By and large, environmentalists like “clean energy.” And who could blame them? They are as fecklessly ignorant and privileged as the pro fracking & pipelines set they so often oppose.
Perhaps Okanagan Nation Grand Chief Stewart Philip put it best when he said that the decision to exclude Indigenous peoples from the Treaty’s renegotiation is a “shocking unilateral decision” and an “act of absolute treachery.”
The price for such treachery, at the very least, is a special place in hell.