Skip to main content

Cross-border faculty field course

View of the Trail Bridge and the Columbia River in Trail, British Columbia, Canada. Photo credit: Brian Findlow.

May 29, 2020

Affiliated faculty of the Center presented “Big Salmon River and Columbia River Treaty modernization” at the UW’s Environmental Justice Conference.

On May 19, 2020, Canadian Studies Center affiliates, Stan de Mello (School of Social Work) and Morna McEachern (Pacific Northwest Canadian Studies Consortium) presented “Social Work across the 49th Parallel: Big Salmon River and Columbia River Treaty modernization; understanding challenges to environmental and social justice through field courses” at the UW College of the Environment’s third annual Environmental Justice Conference: Developing Capacity through Collaborative Action. Morna and Stan share more about the development of their presentation below:

The presentation was based on two field courses up the Columbia River (also known as the Big Salmon River) in 2015 and 2018. The participants, eight the first trip and ten the second, were academics, graduate students, and independent scholars from around the Pacific Northwest. After establishing relationships with many people—Indigenous and non-Indigenous—whose lives are along the river during the first trip, we deepened those connections and visited both dams and traditional territories during the second trip. We are planning a third field course trip up the river in 2021.

There is no better way to understand the complexities and vitality of the river than to place oneself, with humility and respect, along the river and sit at the feet of the experts. It is in this spirit of striving for ethical engagement that we developed field courses.

Ethics matter in all our pursuits, and the Columbia River Treaty is about a specific place. To quote one of our field course hosts, Dr. Jeanette Armstrong, Syilx leader and scholar, “unless humans, unlike other life forms, live an ethic that protects continuing regeneration of the life force of a place, become destroyers of that life force.” To support that regeneration, it is of paramount importance that the treaty negotiators listen to and incorporate the expertise—environmental, economic, scientific, political, cultural, spiritual—of the people with place-based experience of stewardship of the river for over 10,000 years. Blending these 10,000 years of Indigenous experience with modern technologies will inform developing adaptive agreements for a workable, healthy, modern Columbia River Treaty; a treaty that recognizes the future of the river and all its systems.

To support the ever-increasing demand for electricity, Canada and the United States signed the Columbia River Treaty in 1964. By the treaty agreement, four dams were built, three in Canada and one in Washington State, to regulate the flow of river so that throughout the year hydroelectric power could be generated consistently and floods could be managed. During the negotiations, both the Canadian and U.S. governments found no commercial value in Indigenous fishing practices and did not consult the Indigenous peoples on either side of the 49th parallel. The result destroyed many ecosystems and further cemented the inability of salmon to return to their spawning streams, cutting off the major food source of the peoples known as the Salmon People.

From 2014 to 2024, the treaty is up for modernization. Beginning several years prior to this ten-year period, alliances between Indigenous peoples, environmental scientists and religious leaders have been working toward convincing Canadian and U.S. governments to add ecosystem values to the treaty’s agreements.

At present, the official negotiations are underway. While there are no Indigenous people at the negotiating table, Canada has given some Indigenous representatives official observer status. The United States has officially included ecosystem values as one of its proposals for a renewed treaty and has, as of March 2020 included Native American representatives as expert advisors. Neither nation state has yet to share the negotiating table with the peoples whose voices have been most excluded from the treaty process, past and present.

The Pacific Northwest Canadian Studies Consortium (PNWCSC) was organized in late 1986 and early 1987 with the mission to facilitate the development of Canadian Studies at institutions of higher education in the Pacific Northwest, and to enhance cooperation, joint programming, and information sharing among Canadian Studies programs and faculty in the Pacific region. The Canadian Studies Center serves as secretariat for the Consortium.