Thomas gives update on Columbia River Treaty negotiations

·3 min read

Shuswap Band councillor, Mark Thomas, is busy making his (on behalf of the Shuswap Band and Nation) mark on Columbia River Treaty negotiations. His involvement began three years ago, when he was first elected as a Shuswap Band councillor. “I took over the portfolio from fellow [and current] councillor, Tim Eugene,” Thomas says. “With my background of twenty years’, working on Columbia River salmon restoration, it was a natural move to become the band’s spokesperson.” From there, the Shuswap Nation confirmed Thomas’ role and responsibility to represent Secwepemc peoples.

He agreed and thus became a part of the Columbia River Treaty Negotiating Advisory Team (NAT). The team has representatives from five governments: the Province of British Columbia, Shuswap, Ktunaxa and Syilx Okanagan Nations, and Canada’s federal government. Three years ago, the three Indigenous nations involved on the team were also granted observer status by the Canadian Government. “That allowed us to oversee the negotiations between Canada and the United States,” Thomas says. “It gave the Indigenous people more ability to maneuver through the CRT process, an opportunity to be present in meetings, an opportunity for input with issues, and ultimately brings us to an international level of discussion.”

Covid-19 has hindered the negotiating process between the United States and Canada. “It’s been quite extensive,” Thomas says, referring to an inability for delegates to travel to either side of the border to conduct meetings. But that’s not to say progress hasn’t been made, discussions among the two countries, albeit slow, are continuing. The space afforded by this lag in negotiations has allowed for additional time to consolidate and advance Indigenous interests.

Thomas was given the responsibility of a third of all physical works on the domestic side of negotiations among the three Indigenous Nations involved. The other two-thirds are split between the Ktunaxa and Syilx Okanagan Nations, respectively. There are many examples of what constitutes domestic issues. “Fish habitat is one,” Thomas said. “Currently, for the Secwepemc, it’s about conducting scientific studies on the impacts to floodplains, riparian zones and wetlands (FRW) from the dams.”

The FRW study will soon be completed. Once complete, the information will be plugged into a model that helps the Indigenous Nations when negotiating with BC Hydro (who have their own models ). “Without access and understanding of the model, or other tools used to understand impacts to values, we as Indigenous peoples wouldn’t have the full picture when negotiating with BC Hydro,” Thomas said. “It’s important for us to be on an equal playing field.”

Once the model has its inputs, it’s about marrying the scientific impacts with the cultural impacts to provide a broader picture of hydrosystem operations, impacts, and mitigation. “In a perfectly functioning system, there would be no cultural impacts in the Columbia River system,” Thomas said. “A healthy ecosystem would be conducive to a positive impact on our cultures.” An example of a balance between scientific and cultural impact would be the reintroduction of salmon to the Columbia River. Salmon, a keystone species to not just the environment but also Indigenous culture. “It’s about understanding the trade-offs,” Thomas says. “If we maximized culture and ecology, what would suffer? The dams would likely have to be deconstructed. But that’s unlikely given the power generation and flood control work they perform. It’s about finding a balance of all considered values.”

Despite Covid-19 pushing negotiations back by a couple of years, Thomas is confident the Columbia River Treaty negotiations will be completed by 2024.

James Rose, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Columbia Valley Pioneer

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