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Posted: November 2, 2013

The Columbia River Treaty must be re-negotiated

GerryWarner1-150x150Perceptions By Gerry Warner

It’s a little early to be thinking of the New Year, but the year 2014 will be momentous because of a piece of paper signed almost 50 years ago that changed this region forever.

The Columbia River Treaty was signed Sept. 16, 1964 near the Peace Arch in Blaine, Washington on a soggy, drizzly, day according to the Blaine Journal. The Treaty was signed by Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson and B.C. Premier W.A.C Bennett, who – for better or worse – was the main architect of the far-reaching Treaty.

An earlier version of the Treaty was actually signed in 1961 by former Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and then U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, but Bennett balked over the issue of who would pay for the three dams to be built on the Canadian side of the border. Three more years of negotiations took place with the Americans eventually agreeing to pony up $274.8 million (Canadian) allowing Bennett to build dams simultaneously on the Columbia and Peace Rivers as part of his “Two Rivers Policy.”

The rest as they say was “history;” a history that could be repeated in 2024 when the historic Treaty comes up for possible renewal. But, as mentioned earlier, the year 2014 will be momentous because 10 years notice is required by either party if the Treaty is to be terminated or significantly renewed. So you’re going to be hearing a lot about the Columbia River Treaty the next decade because the agreement which brought millions, if not billions, in benefits to Canada and the U.S. yet is still considered controversial by many.

Controversial because thousands of acres of prime valley bottom land were inundated on the Canadian side of the border right here in the Kootenays, destroying farms, forests, wildlife and whole communities resulting in close to 3,000 people forcibly removed from their homes and properties and relocated to sites that may have been livable but were definitely not ‘home.’ But it doesn’t end with the forcible relocation of a string of communities in the Kootenays as unpleasant as that was. The building of another dam – the Grand Coulee downstream –in 1942 – was the main impetus that led to the Columbia River Treaty because it greatly increased the capacity of the Grand Coulee reservoir. (Roosevelt Lake), resulting in disruption on a far grander scale, a virtual genocide committed against the millions of Pacific salmon that had returned to spawn in the upper Columbia River system in Canada for thousands of years.

The Grand Coulee might as well have been the Great Wall of China as far as the salmon were concerned. It stopped the mighty Pacific Ocean salmon run halfway short of its ultimate goal in the clean, spawning, gravels of the Columbia and its tributaries on the Canadian side of the border. When the Grand Coulee was built the salmon were barely an afterthought. The environmental movement we know today barely existed. Hell, the great Woody Guthrie even wrote a song in praise of the Grand Coulee Dam, “Roll on Columbia.” How ironic can you get?

But in 2024 we will finally get a chance to mitigate the environmental genocide we committed against the salmon. Thanks largely to the aboriginal peoples on both sides of the border, whose culture was shattered by the building of the Grand Coulee Dam and the four other dams of the Columbia River Treaty that followed, a mighty cry has gone up to right the ‘Great Wrong’ committed against the salmon, the aboriginal people and the rural residents displaced upstream by the destructive Treaty.

Let’s be clear here. There is no question that the Columbia River Treaty was a tremendous financial boon to the region. But let’s also be clear that the dams spawned by the Treaty also caused untold hardship to thousands and was a malignant act of environmental desecration.

Social, cultural and environmental considerations weren’t on the table when the Columbia River Treaty was negotiated in 1964. This time they must be.

The Grand Coulee Dam, a mile in length, contains enough concrete to build two six-feet-wide sidewalks around the world at the Equator. Ian Cobb/e-KNOW
The Grand Coulee Dam, a mile in length, contains enough concrete to build two six-feet-wide sidewalks around the world at the Equator. Ian Cobb/e-KNOW

Gerry Warner is a retired journalist and Cranbrook City Councillor who grew up on the banks of the Columbia River. His opinions are his own.

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