First Nations are asking for the return of the salmon to the entire Columbia River system as part of the Columbia River Treaty negotiations, including the upper portion of the Arrow Lakes, in order to reclaim their culture.
In a Zoom meeting on May 16 for the latest installment of the Columbia River Treaty negotiations, Chief Keith Crow of the Smelqmix, Lower Similkameen Indian Band, called for greater consideration of salmon in the river system.
“The Columbia River Treaty has been one of the biggest infringements within our territories, infringement of the treaty that was never negotiated with us,” he said.
The benefits that Canada and B.C. have received from the treaty have been tremendous, Crow said, but at the expense of the salmon and First Nations cultural traditions.
He pointed to the Columbia River salmon restoration initiative — which started three years ago — as an example of reversing that trend.
“I think it is another major piece to bringing the salmon back up the Columbia all the way into the Upper Arrow,” he said, which is a goal of the Smelqmix Nation.
Jay Johnston of the Penticton Indian Band agreed. Although the Columbia River Treaty was formed on two points — energy production and flood control — it has never considered the effect on First Nations.
“(I)t left out not only many voices in the (Columbia) Basin and around the river, but it also left out the environment and the ecosystems and the cultural values that are so critically important to all of us,” he said.
Several First Nations have been “working hard” to ensure that the intentions of indigenous nations are included in the renewed treaty, said Johnston, something which was long overdue.
“The voice of indigenous peoples is crucial and is finally coming about in a way that will affect the treaty in a positive and beneficial way,” he said. “Most indigenous communities living along the river system have had to share in the burden, not the benefit, of the river system.”
Salmon is crucial to all First Nations in Canada and in the Basin, Johnston said, and the Okanagan are salmon people.
“The salmon is not just about sustenance and nutrition, it’s also about cultural values and ceremonies, and bringing salmon back is also about re-invigorating of social networks in terms of distribution of food, the ceremonies around the distribution of the food, the teachings from the elders to the youth, the connection of youth back to elders and the community members,” he said.
“All those networks that have been inactive because of the lack of salmon have been re-introduced and re-invigorated as a result of the salmon coming back. It makes stronger, deeper, healthier communities, as a result.”
The sockeye salmon are now returning in numbers that started around 1,000 to now hundreds of thousands, Johnston pointed out.
But the impact of the dams on the river system has to be considered in the new agreement, said Sandra Luke of the Ktunaxa Nation — band councillor from Yaqan Nukiy (Lower Kootenay Band) in Creston.
“The Nation really hopes to reduce the impacts of the Columbia River Treaty operations on our cultural, our waters and our lands … all living things,” she said.
She has been involved with the Columbia River Treaty for the past six years, and noted that the Libby Dam has collapsed the white sturgeon population in Kootenay Lake and the Kootenay River.
“Sturgeon used to be very important to us and we hope a renewal of the treaty will result in improved river conditions for (sturgeon) and other species,” she said.
Nathan Matthew, Secwepemc Nation observer in the Columbia River Treaty negotiations, said the treaty negotiators have some important work to do in order to right history.
“The treaty and the construction of the dams are truly the biggest infringement on the lives of indigenous nations ever in our history, and some of the discussion that we have in terms of how to reconcile, how to bring things up to date in terms of the current commitments of government, it’s not easy, so it’s a really great challenge,” he said.
Going from non-existence of rights to the really quite clear statements of government that they are going to reconcile with the current constitutional and legal frameworks that are out there is really a big task, Matthew stated.
First Nations have the right to the lands — under the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People which Canada signed — the territories and the resources that they have owned, occupied or otherwise used, he added. Article 29 of the declaration says indigenous people have the right to the protection and the productivity of the environment and their lands.
Matthew said the idea that the cultural and ecological values are key to the negotiations, including benefit sharing and the re-introduction of the salmon.
“How do we participate together with Canada and British Columbia and the United States in how the rising and the falling and the flowing of the water through the system impact indigenous interests, and how those operations can be changed so as to provide greater benefits and greater help to indigenous peoples and health to the ecological environment,” he said. “So we have a very clear mandate to protect the land and the resources.”
Kathy Eichenberger, executive director of B.C.'s Provincial Columbia River Treaty team,said the pace of the negotiations was slow, but it now contained cultural values that needed to be sorted out.
“However, to provide this benefit we expect that it is values appropriately and that we are also able to achieve the increase flexibility in the other areas of the treaty that … for our own domestic goals, including ecosystem benefits and indigenous cultural values and socio-economic objectives, considerations that were not talked about in the original treaty.”
Bringing the salmon home
Bringing the Salmon Home: The Columbia River Salmon Reintroduction Initiative brings together five governments — the Syilx Okanagan Nation, Ktunaxa Nation, Secwépemc Nation, Canadaand British Columbia— who have made a visionary agreement to explore salmon reintroduction into the upper Columbia River region.
The Letter of Agreementwas signed at an official ceremony on July 29, 2019 in Castlegar. This is a three-year renewable commitment by the five governments to work together to look at the feasibility and options for reintroducing salmon into the Canadian side of the Columbia River.
The long-term vision is to return fish stocks for indigenous food, social and ceremonial needs, and to benefit the region’s residents and ecosystems as a whole.