River Talk: The Columbia River Treaty and the Free Trade of Water
Eileen Delehanty Pearkes has been researching and writing about the history and politics of water in the upper Columbia Basin since 2005.
Her book on the Columbia River Treaty, A River Captured, was released in 2016. Recently, her travelling exhibit on the Columbia River Treaty, curated for Touchstones Nelson, won a national award from the Canadian Museum Association.
Pearkes has agreed to help readers understand the importance of the Columbia River Treaty to the region with another edition of River Talk.
Today Pearkes writes about how U.S. President Donald Trump and re-negotiations North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and how it might affect the Columbia River Treaty.
U.S. President Donald Trump opened re-negotiations for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) the week of August 18. These negotiations are set to take place over the next year. Some policy-makers and activists who are focused on the Columbia River Treaty’s possible re-negotiations are privately wondering — will focus on NAFTA eclipse important issues swirling around the U.S. and Canada’s shared use of the Columbia River’s abundant flows?
Back when NAFTA was signed, no clause exempting water from consideration was added to the agreement. This has led to controversy and ambiguities over whether water exports are subject to NAFTA or not. Does a river’s natural downstream flow count as an “export”? Does water in Canada become a commodity once it is stored in a reservoir, and therefore an export for consideration under NAFTA?
In 1988, just before signing NAFTA, Canada came close to protecting its freshwater supplies with the Canada Water Preservation Act. This act would have prevented further large-scale diversion and export of water, but an unanticipated election-call (under Canada’s parliamentary system) stymied the legislation.
I came to Canada as a newlywed American in 1985. In 1987, my Canadian husband and I dressed up for a Hallowe’en party as the NAFTA agreement. To play on our personal opposites, I wore the Canadian Flag, he donned Uncle Sam’s hat. Little did I know then how much my later life would be governed by bi-national tendencies, in particular when it comes to the Columbia River Treaty. Writing and researching my book A River Captured, I learned how complicated things can get when we draw lines across continents, or rivers (i.e., dams).
According to David Schindler (professor of Ecology at the University of Alberta) and Adele Hurley (director of Water Issues, Monk School, University of Toronto), the current state of our world ecosystems will play a role in NAFTA negotiations, and very likely in Columbia River Treaty (CRT) discussions. They point out that with supplies of conventional resources such as oil, gas and forest products declining in Canada, there will be a temptation on the part of the government to sell more hydro-power, or even water, to the U.S.
Case in point: the drying out of the thirsty mid-Columbia River basin due to climate changes. The water Canada’s mountains will continue to produce may grow more valuable. If climate modelling is on target, the vast mid-Basin will lose most of its mountain snow-storage by 2080. A few areas of the upper Basin are actually situated to receive more snow as the climate shifts; most of the upper Basin’s mountains will retain a large percentage of snow, though melt-cycles are sure to change.
A wild card has just been played across the borderland of shared economies. The Trudeau government appointed a First Nations representative to a 13-member council that will provide Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland with unfiltered opinions about NAFTA during negotiations. National Assembly Chief Perry Bellgrade will likely remind the minister of the artificial trade boundary separating many tribes, including the upper Columbia’s Sinixt. Their case is particularly tragic. Declared “extinct” from 80% of their territory in Canada in 1956, they continued to exist in the lower 20% of their territory in the United States and yet have long been denied entry to Canada.
In 1794, the U.S. and Canada signed the Jay Treaty, an agreement providing free border crossing for “the Indians dwelling on either side of the line.” This would have nullified the effects of any future extinction. But in 1956, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Jay Treaty was not law because it had not been ratified by Parliament. Is it more than coincidence that the bureaucratic extinction of the Sinixt occurred the same year as the over-ruling of the Jay Treaty?
Bellegarde’s presence on the advisory council represents an opportunity for discussions over water and other resources as they are governed by NAFTA to expand, and perhaps even encompass a fresh way of thinking about the Columbia River Treaty. As John Raulston Saul expresses so eloquently in his 2013 treatise The Comeback, important issues often get “sidelined . . . into a confusion of competing facts.” They move quickly to analysis using a linear point of view. Indigenous world views, by contrast, are more spatial than linear. They are relational and are often governed by theories of harmony. Indigenous people account for, Saul says, a multiplicity of perspectives in their function.
The world is changing.
Will NAFTA and the CRT change, too?
Stay informed and stay tuned.