Ottawa to appoint chief negotiator for Columbia River Treaty

PM Justin Trudeau to appoint chief negotiator to lead Columbia River Treaty talks; Canada still waiting for U.S. to take position

The Columbia River Treaty resulted in the construction of several dams along the river

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be appointing a negotiator to lead talks on updating the Columbia River Treaty, according to a U.S. Senator from Washington State.

“Prime Minister Trudeau, Foreign Minister (Stephane) Dion, and I had a positive discussion today. The Canadian leaders agreed to move forward and appoint a chief negotiator to begin treaty talks. Modernizing this treaty would benefit Americans and Canadians along the Columbia River across the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia,” said Senator Maria Cantwell in a news release last Thursday.

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed the news, writing in an e-mail that “progress towards establishing a negotiating team was made” during Trudeau’s visit to Washington last week.

“The Government of Canada has been and will continue working closely with the Government of British Columbia to prepare for discussions with the United States on the future of the Treaty,” wrote Joseph Pickerill.

The Columbia River Treaty was signed in 1964 in order to provide flood control in the United States. In exchange, Canada was given $254 million to build three dams along the river, and granted a share of profits from extra U.S. power production that resulted from the treaty.

The treaty can be canceled or changed starting 2024, provided one side give 10 years notice to do so.

Both sides have expressed a desire to modify the treaty. In B.C., the province, local governments in the Columbia Basin and First Nations have each submitted recommendations for improvements. In the U.S., legislators have been urging the White House to begin discussions.

Discussions so far have surrounded the compensation B.C. should receive for providing flood control and adding environmental considerations to the treaty. First Nations on both sides of the border are pushing to restore the Columbia River salmon run as part of the treaty.

So far, Ottawa has largely left discussions in the hands of the B.C. government. Bill Bennett, the MLA for Kootenay East and the Minister of Energy & Mines, said they are still waiting to hear Ottawa’s position on the treaty, as well as that of the American government, who so far have not indicated whether or not they want to re-negotiate.

“We actually have legal authority to be consulted by the federal government and they require our sign off on anything that is negotiated,” he said. “That’s the most important thing for people to understand is the Canadian government doesn’t have the same unilateral authority the U.S. government has.”

Bennett said he expects Ottawa to take the lead on negotiations, “with B.C. right at their elbow providing information and perspective.”

“We certainly would welcome the opportunity to negotiate with the US on improving the treaty,” he said. “We’re not interested in opening up the treaty, but we’re certainly interested in improving it.”

Kootenay-Columbia MP Wayne Stetski, noted the work that has been done by the province, local governments and First Nations so far. He said the federal government’s job should be to support the work that’s been done.

“We certainly should not be starting to do it all over again,” he said.

He said the report from Washington was the first news he’d heard about the treaty since being elected in October. “This was the first movement on it that I’ve seen.”