The following is a press release detailing a letter from 14 religious and 7 Indigenous leaders calling on American President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to begin work toward modernizing the Columbia River Treaty. The treaty addresses the governing of water resources to promote economic growth, wealth, and happiness for the citizens of these nations. National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald is among the signatories.
Today religious and indigenous leaders urged President Obama and Prime Minister Harper to start negotiations to modernize the Columbia River Treaty. Both nations need to work together to right historic wrongs and promote water stewardship in the face of climate change. The letter, signed by 14 religious leaders and 7 indigenous leaders representing nearly all Tribes and First Nations in the Columbia Basin, transmitted a Declaration on Ethics and modernizing the Columbia River Treaty as a foundation for international negotiations.
“The Declaration speaks very clearly of how important and critical it is for there to be justice to correct the many years of injustice to the Native people of the Columbia Basin, including the First Nations of Canada,” said Matt Wynne, Chairman of the Upper Columbia United Tribes. “Religious and indigenous leaders coming together to sign and support this declaration underscores that the future of the Columbia River is not just a political, but a moral issue. Native Americans suffered the greatest losses and the most damage as a result of not being included in the first negotiations leading up to the 1964 Treaty. It helps keep my spirit strong knowing that our struggle for justice and stewardship of the river carries so much faith-based support.”
“Rarely does the convergence of political responsibility, Indigenous Rights, and ecosystem benefit converge in such a dramatic and urgent way,” said Bishop Mark MacDonald, the Anglican Church of Canada’s first National Indigenous Anglican Bishop. “A modernized treaty for the Columbia River is an opportunity for all the peoples of the Columbia – and the great system of life which is the River ecosystem – to walk through to a new day of justice and well-being.”
The Declaration on Ethics and Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty sets forth eight principles for modernizing the Columbia River Treaty that include respecting indigenous rights, protecting and restoring healthy ecosystems with abundant fish and wildlife populations, and providing fish passage to all historical locations.
“Our Tribal and First Nation communities in both Canada and the United States have fundamentally relied on Salmon as our life source,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Chair of the Okanagan Nation Alliance. “As Elders have stated ‘we are salmon people.’ The unilateral and ignorant actions of the U.S. power authorities blocking our salmon in the 1930s with dam construction followed a few decades later by turning our Upper Columbia watershed into industrial storage reservoirs has devastated our Lands, Fisheries and gravely impacted our culture and communities.”
“The original Columbia River Treaty was signed with no input from the original inhabitants of the land,” said Kathryn Teneese, Ktunaxa Nation Council Chair. “Traditional ways of life in the Columbia Basin were radically altered forever. It is important that we recognize the mistakes of the past so that we may focus on the future. We must work together across territories and boundaries to build a new Columbia River Treaty that includes restoring salmon to the upper Columbia as a priority.”
Political leaders in Ottawa and Washington D.C. have not taken a position on the renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty. Federal agencies within the United States have recommended that the United States and Canada “develop a modernized framework for the Treaty that ensures a more resilient and healthy ecosystem-based function throughout the Columbia River Basin while maintaining an acceptable level of flood risk and assuring reliable and economic hydropower benefits.” All four Northwest states, 15 Columbia Basin tribes, fishermen and environmentalists support that recommendation.
British Columbia provincial officials released their draft recommendation in March of 2014. Their recommendation was that the Treaty be renewed and that changes occur within the existing framework. The B.C. Province maintains that ecosystem values are currently an important consideration and that they should continue to be a consideration, as well as adaptation to climate change, in Treaty planning and implementation. The federal government in Ottawa that will negotiate with the United States has not yet issued Canada’s recommendations on the Treaty.
“The hard work needed to address these historical injustices is reflected in the strong unity that this group represents,” continued Grand Chief Phillip. “In Canada, We have the wind at our back with the recent supreme court of Canada’s Tsilhqot’in decision that paves the way for the broad recognition of our inherent title to our lands. The time is now for reconciliation that will support our stewardship responsibility for the salmon and passage into the upper Columbia. It’s an ethical and moral decision for the governments of Canada and the United States to do the right thing.”
Added Bishop MacDonald, “There is no doubt that a modernized Treaty restoring the Columbia River to health and returning salmon to ancestral spawning waters would transform discussions of environment, Indigenous Rights, and the future of sustainable life around the world. The churches, who have always rhetorically aspired to walk with Indigenous Peoples, have a chance, in this opportunity, to walk with Indigenous Peoples in a movement towards just and sustainable life for all.”
The Declaration on Ethics & Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty highlights key points regarding the rights and management authorities of the Columbia Basin tribes in the United States and the First Nations in Canada that were ignored when the Treaty was implemented fifty years ago.
The Declaration is based on the Columbia River Pastoral Letter, signed by the twelve Roman Catholic Bishops of the international watershed, that called on everyone to “work together to develop and implement an integrated spiritual, social and ecological vision for our watershed home.” Today’s request to Obama and Harper also follows seventeen multi-faith prayer vigils held in August along the 1,200 miles of the mainstem Columbia River that focused on the need to restore salmon runs now blocked by dams.
The Columbia River Treaty governs the management of the Columbia River, shared by Canada and the United States. Dams transformed the Columbia River into the world’s largest integrated hydropower machine and reduced flood risk allowing flood plain real estate development. Dams blocked returning salmon, permanently flooded vast river valleys and wildlife habitat, forced thousands of people from their homes and ancestral fishing sites, and destroyed a way of life known to indigenous people from time immemorial. The trust, treaty and honour obligations of the United States and Canada to ensure healthy, sustainable populations of salmon, sturgeon, lamprey, bull trout and other native fish and wildlife, their habitats and other cultural resources were not provided for in the Treaty and tribes were not consulted during its negotiation.
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