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Island Voices: First Nations excluded from Columbia River Treaty negotiations

In measuring how well our federal government is doing in fostering appropriate relations with Indigenous Peoples, it is appropriate and legitimate to use as the yardstick the standards that have been self-imposed.
Spring runoff waters in the Columbia River churn as they pass through the spillways at Bonneville Dam near Cascade Locks, Oregon.

In measuring how well our federal government is doing in fostering appropriate relations with Indigenous Peoples, it is appropriate and legitimate to use as the yardstick the standards that have been self-imposed.

The fact that this relationship continues to be a roller-coaster ride for First Nations was clearly demonstrated on May 28, at the Columbia River Symposium, a special day-long event of the Canadian Water Resources Association held at the University of Victoria. The symposium was held on the day before meetings were initiated, in New York, regarding renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty with the U.S.

As you entered the lecture theatre in which the symposium was held, you received a handout providing background on the presentations of the speakers who were to address the gathering. Ken Warren, the final listed presenter, was described as having “37 years Crown-Indigenous relations,” and his presentation was described as follows:

“A Canadian federal perspective on First Nations and the treaty.

“Indigenous Peoples of the Columbia basin were not included in the negotiation and implementation of the Columbia River Treaty. That historic omission will not be repeated in negotiations on the future of the treaty. The presentation will summarize Canada’s engagement with Indigenous Peoples of the basin, identify some of the issues and objectives raised by Indigenous Peoples during the review of the Treaty (2012-2014) and describe current plans to engage Indigenous Peoples in treaty negotiations with the United States.”

Reading this, one felt proud of progress our country had made in the 54 years since the Columbia River Treaty came into force. In negotiating the renewal of the treaty, the federal Liberal government would not again exclude Indigenous Peoples from the negotiations.

This approach was clearly in keeping with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the “Calls to Action” of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Liberal government’s own “Principles Respecting the Government of Canada’s Relationship With Indigenous Peoples.”

The bubble of pride was exploded later in the day, when Chief Wayne Christian had been expected to speak about a First Nations perspective on the renegotiation of the treaty. Recent actions by the Liberal government had apparently given rise to more immediate concerns.

Chief Christian reported that, on May 17 (just 12 days before the commencement of negotiations with the U.S.), his people had been informed of a change in direction of the Liberal government. Affected First Nations were now to be excluded from the negotiating room. This was subsequently reported in Nation Talk as follows:

“Late last week, the three Indigenous Nations — the rightful title and rights holders of the Upper Columbia Basin … — were told by the government of Canada that they would be excluded from direct participation in the renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty (‘CRT’). The CRT is the largest international water storage agreement between Canada and the United States. The three Indigenous Nations are united in their approach to the re-negotiation of the treaty and are shocked that Global Affairs Canada would forgo an important opportunity for Prime Minister Trudeau and his Liberal government to demonstrate his commitment to rights recognition and meaningful reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.”

In defence of its exclusion of affected First Nations, the Liberal government says that it will consult them as negotiations proceed. It insists that it leads and is responsible for any and all international negotiations, such as in this case, and I doubt that anyone would take issue with that position. That, however, misses the point.

Let’s be realistic. When I went to see a movie at the theatre not long ago, I could have left my wife at home with the comforting promise that I would later tell her all about it. But my wife is nobody’s fool.

And neither are First Nations. Christian, in his powerful speech, recalled seeing, in the 1950s and ’60s, signs stating “No Dogs or Indians Allowed.” First Nations are not dogs. They are neither children nor inferior individuals.

Those negatively affected by the Columbia River Treaty have been severely affected, and they have earned our respect. These First Nations have a united, powerful approach to how the treaty should be improved, and they deserve to go to the movie.

The Liberal government, if sincere, must grant to the affected First Nations observer status at these negotiations. Doing so would not be prejudicial to federal jurisdiction over international affairs, but would restore some degree of trust. Failing to do so leaves an interesting question unanswered.

It was reported at the symposium that the U.S. government had similarly advised U.S. tribes of their exclusion from these negotiations. This had occurred two to three weeks before the Liberal government informed the Canadian First Nations to like effect.

The question remains: Why did the Liberal government change its course on this issue so late in the day and only after the U.S. government had done so?

Robert Allen McLash is a retired lawyer who lives in Esquimalt. He is the vice-president of the Canadian Club of Victoria and a member of the board of directors of the Qualicum Institute.