In 1961, the damming of the Columbia River in Canada flooded fertile valleys and old-growth forests, it displaced people, killed wildlife and forced Indigenous nations from traditional land. The 60-year-old treaty that affected the lives of thousands is currently being renegotiated. Words :: Andrew Findlay // photos :: Agathe Bernard.
Flames licked up the side of houses in Grahams Landing. They were the last of the buildings to be torched in this farming community located in the fertile narrows between Upper and Lower Arrow Lakes. By October 1968, work had been completed on the Hugh Keenleyside Dam upstream of Castlegar—six months ahead of schedule.
Spanning the valley for nearly a kilometre, this concrete and earthen dam was the second of three Columbia River Treaty dams. The Mica and Duncan were the other two that Canada would build as part of its obligations under the Columbia River Treaty signed with the United States in 1961 and ratified three years later against a backdrop of grassroots protest and controversy. Canada was also required to provide 15.5 million acre-feet of water storage annually (an acre foot is enough to cover a football field in a foot of water). In addition, the treaty gave the U.S. the right to build a fourth dam at Libby, Montana, which would flood a swath of southeastern British Columbia for water storage.
It was a far-reaching agreement aimed at protecting communities in B.C., Washington and Oregon from flooding and generating hydroelectricity.
In the name of downstream flood control, the waters of the Arrow Lake Reservoir were soon to rise and submerge upstream communities in Burton, Fauquier and Grahams Landing.
“Around 2,100 settlers were displaced. A third relocated to New Burton and New Fauquier, a third just picked up and left, and a third moved to Nakusp,” says Kyle Kush, a lifelong Nakusp resident and archivist at the Arrow Lakes Historical Society. “The Columbia River Treaty is still a big deal around here. It depends on who you talk to. Some people say it was a positive thing, others say it was negative.”
Many of the forcibly relocated lost their livelihoods and were impoverished. The Hugh Keenleyside dam sat on top of what was then Daisy Welsh’s family property at a rural farming community known as High Arrow.
“Going back to BC Hydro, to the men that represented them, there was no standards. They treated us all like we were just little children,” Welsh describes in a video interview for the Columbia Basin Trust. “Where did the people of Arrow Lakes stand? They were right down there and taken advantage of in every way possible.”
In Nakusp and other Columbia River communities, the politics of water are never far from mind even 60 years after the ink dried on the Columbia River Treaty. Nor are they among the Secwepemc, Ktunaxa and Okanagan Nations whose territories lie within this vast watershed; the Columbia River Treaty cut to the core of who they are as a culture and people. This is also traditional territory of the Sinixt Nation which was literally rendered invisible by a 1956 Canadian government decision that conveniently declared them extinct. Since then, they’ve had to fight to prove that they exist, culminating in a landmark 2021 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada recognizing their right to hunt and fish across the international border in a territory spanning from Washington State to Revelstoke.
Unpacking this treaty is like opening a Pandora’s box as complicated as the swirling currents of a glacier-fed river. Now this complex treaty is being modernized and First Nations have a seat at the table.
On a warm summer morning, an osprey perches regally on a dead snag above the north end of Columbia Lake near Canal Flats in southeastern B.C. Mule deer browse willows nearby, flicking their ears at the annoying buzz of mosquitoes. A slow current gathers at the north end of the lake where the Columbia, the fourth largest river system on the continent, begins its peaceful unassuming life. From there it heads northward, soon meandering through the rich wetlands of the Rocky Mountain Trench, home to more than 260 species of birds.
As it flows past Golden, the Columbia gathers force, fed by tumbling tributaries like the Kicking Horse, Blaeberry and countless other mountain rivers. After the river passes beneath the Trans Canada Highway at Donald, it enters the Kinbasket Reservoir, a slack, ecologically bankrupt body of water that rose behind the Mica Dam in 1973. In a rush to flood this valley bottom forest and riparian habitat, just 20 per cent of an estimated 5 million cubic metres of timber was harvested ahead of the rising waters. The rest was submerged and wasted.
That was the ethic of the era: get it done as fast as possible and never mind the ecological and human cost. To say the impacts of human interference on the Columbia River are profound barely even scratches the surface. The tree stumps on the shore of the Arrow Lakes, Kinbasket, and Lake Koocanusa reservoirs are a vivid reminder of what was and what became of these once pristine valleys and landscapes filled with old-growth cedar, white pine and fir.
When it was negotiated, the terms of the treaty were narrow, and by the narrow terms of flood abatement and power generation it could be called a success. It helped avoid billions of dollars in flood damage and generated billions of dollars in electricity for Canada and the U.S. Back then, the environmental movement was nascent and the concept of Indigenous rights and title unheard of.
BC Hydro, the provincial Crown corporation that manages the power grid, still touts hydroelectricity as green power, but it’s a simplistic term that masks the ecological and human costs of its generation.
In the ensuing years, the negatives have piled up as the impacts of dams and reservoirs have been studied by groups like the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. For example, more than 40 per cent of steelhead and salmons spawning and rearing habitat in the Columbia River Basin has been lost. The concept of clean hydroelectricity also needs a rethink. BC Hydro, the provincial Crown corporation that manages the power grid, still touts hydroelectricity as green power, but it’s a simplistic term that masks the ecological and human costs of its generation. The Columbia River salmon that nourished people and ecosystems, and once counted hundreds of tributaries in the Columbia and Rocky Mountains, were decimated in a process of river management that started with the construction of Washington State’s Grand Coulee dam in 1941.
“We took one of the greatest natural ecosystem powerhouses on the planet and shut it down to produce electricity,” wrote William Sandford, Deborah Harford and Jon O’Riordan, coauthors of the book The Columbia River Treaty: A Primer.
“Dam construction caused convulsions throughout the entire natural energy cycle of the Columbia River.”
Though there remains much work to be done on true reconciliation, Canada’s appreciation—and recognition—of Indigenous rights has advanced light years since the 1960s when they were universally ignored. From the flooding of burial sites and hunting grounds to the loss of salmon, the treaty had “catastrophic consequences” on Indigenous people, in the words of Sandford, Harford and O’Riordan: “In the minds of Treaty-makers, Indigenous interests were non-existent …”.
In 1972, when the Americans completed the Libby Dam on the Kootenai River in Montana, it flooded Ktunaxa territory in B.C. Neither government asked nor consulted this East Kootenay First Nation. Their losses were simply collateral damage in a transnational flood control and power scheme.
“It’s been over 80 years since the Ktunaxa have been able to harvest salmon within the Columbia Basin,’ says Kathryn Teneese, chair of the Ktunaxa Nation Council who is shaping treaty negotiations along with representatives from Secwepemc and Syilx Okanagan Nations (government chose not to include the Sinixt). “Overall, the impacts are immense.”
They lost precious mountain caribou habitat and some of the best agricultural lands. Cultural sites were damaged and destroyed. Teneese says the submersion of waterfalls on the Kootenay and Columbia rivers cannot be measured but their “importance to the Ktunaxa is very high.”
She says the elders have made it clear—a modern treaty must include reconciliation and redress for what happened to the Ktunaxa.
“It needs to include significant reductions in the ecological and cultural impacts of the operation of the treaty dams and reservoirs, support for salmon restoration, full participation in the governance of the CRT system and in the economic benefits of the treaty,” Teneese says.
Wayne Kukpi7 Christian, a former Splatsin chief and chair of the Shuswap Tribal Council, is one of the leaders who lobbied the federal government to get Indigenous representation at the negotiation table.
“We’re in the room now; we weren’t before,” he says. “Bringing salmon back is central to what we want. It was a resource that ensured our people would survive. But it was more than a food source, it was a way of life.”
Spawning salmon once migrated to the north end of the wild Columbia’s natural arch through B.C., near a place known as “Big Bend.” Not anymore. This is where the tamed Columbia springs back to life from the doldrums of the Kinbasket reservoir and roars through the spillways of Mica Dam. From there, it courses through the steep-sided valley dividing the Monashee and Selkirk mountains. It has become a glacier-fed powerhouse—literally. The Mica has capacity to generate 2,746 MW (megawatt)—enough electricity for two million homes.
But the river’s sudden freedom to flow is short-lived. In less than 50 kilometres, it swirls to a standstill at Lake Revelstoke, a reservoir formed after the government constructed the 2,480-MW Revelstoke Dam and generating station in 1984.
That is the ultimate trade-off when it comes to massive hydroelectric projects. Sacrifice the natural life of a river, hundreds of thousands of hectares of terrestrial habitat, birds, deer, bear, mountain caribou and myriad other wildlife species, in exchange for the luxury of taking endless showers in water heated by cheap hydroelectricity.
What really burns about the original Columbia River Treaty for many people is B.C.’s defacto role as a place to store water. When the Hugh Keenleyside was first commissioned it was for flood control only (it wasn’t until 2000 that a 185-MW power generation plant was added). The dam on the Duncan River, a tributary watershed that once teemed with waterfowl, still has the no other purpose than to retain water for American interests.
Sacrifice the natural life of a river, hundreds of thousands of hectares of terrestrial habitat, birds, deer, bear, mountain caribou and myriad other wildlife species, in exchange for the luxury of taking endless showers in water heated by cheap hydroelectricity.
“The Duncan produces no electricity, and destroyed what was a very large and very rich ecosystem largely to support hydroelectric generation south of the border,” said Rod Retzlaff in a recent letter to the Nelson Star. “The Duncan Valley and Kootenay system are too valuable for us to continue to allow the Americans to use them as a big storage tank.”
It’s a sentiment widely shared.
Treaty negotiations between Canada and the U.S. have been underway since 2018, with 16 negotiating sessions to date. There is much to consider, in 2019, First Nations of the Columbia Basin signed a letter of agreement with the federal and provincial governments committing to the return of salmon to the upper Columbia.
Bringing salmon back to this tortured watershed is a monumental undertaking that could require the building of complex fish ladders to allow salmon to bypass dams. Between Canada and the U.S., there are more than 60 dams in the Columbia River watershed, including 18 on the Columbia itself. Climate change wasn’t a topic of conversation in the 1960s. Today, it’s paramount. Weather is changing. Climate scientists predict less water will be stored as snow in the mountains of B.C. in winter and more will fall as rain. Storms will be more intense. And this will have huge implications for dam operation
Peter Lonergan, a spokesperson for B.C.’s Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation, says the specific details of the current discussions “are confidential.”
However, he said the “essential elements of a modernized treaty include sharing benefits equitably between the two countries.”
It also means addressing some of the ecosystem destruction, providing increased flexibility for Canadian dam operations, working toward salmon reintroduction, providing protection from damaging floods, and also ensuring “fair compensation for the benefits Canadian flow regulation provides,” Longeran says.
In the early 1990s, communities impacted by the treaty started lobbying for compensation. It led to the formation of the Columbia Basin Trust (CBT.) It was funded by a $321-million endowment and 16 annual payments of $2 million, the last of which was made in 2010. Over the years, CBT has funded hundreds of community projects, economic development and conservation initiatives. Hundreds of kilometres of mountain biking trails have been built with CBT dollars in places like Revelstoke, Nakusp, Nelson, Castlegar and Rossland.
From up high on a piece of singletrack called Tamarack that switchbacks above Rossland, mountain bikers can barely discern the rooftops of Trail, the gritty industrial counterpart to Rossland’s quaint, heritage alpine mining town vibe. The Columbia River flows through Trail in big, creamy boils past Teck Resource’s massive gothic-looking lead-zinc smelter. It is the Columbia’s last Canadian stop before winding further south to its confluence with the Pend d’Oreille River. Shortly after, it enters the U.S., crossing an arbitrary political border that is meaningless in the context of a natural river, but has had infinite consequences on the Columbia. From the 49th parallel, it winds for another 250 kilometres southward, bending west to form the Oregon-Washington border, then pouring into the Pacific Ocean at Astoria.
Sixty years after the Columbia River Treaty was signed, many people feel Canada gave away too much at the bargaining table. For First Nations, the losses are almost incalculable.
“This is much more than when the original treaty was negotiated back in the early 1960s, and when the Ktunaxa had no seat at all,” says Teneese. “Just how meaningful of a seat it is will be evidenced when the new treaty has been reached.”
Perhaps the biggest measure of a successful modern treaty will be if one day salmon return to spawn in the upper Columbia watershed.
Go deeper: For further reading, pick up the new edition of A River Captured: the Columbia River Treaty and Catastrophic Change by Eileen Delehanty Pearkes, published by Rocky Mountain Books.
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