Today, the Biden-Harris Administration and Dept. of the Interior announced an historic agreement to support the reintroduction of ocean salmon to the upper Columbia River, including $200 million over 20 years, and another $8 million over two. This support of the tribal people and the fish central to their cultural lives comes at a critical time for the survival of the species in the Pacific Northwest.
It also ups the ante for Canada to do more. Much more.
As a dual US-Canadian citizen, I have travelled across the international Columbia River basin for over two decades, listening to the tribes who have never given up on their sacred responsibility to the fish. I watched, frankly disgusted, as hydro-power companies, government agencies and other power-brokers in the system ignored, excluded or dismissed the idea of salmon reintroduction above Grand Coulee Dam into British Columbia, Canada.
Those days are past now. My heart is joyful. The Salmon and the People just got a big boost. Yet, in the same moment, I know that Canada has never been a leader on this issue.
In the 1930s-40s, when the US constructed Grand Coulee Dam in northeastern Washington, it asked its friendly neighbour: do you want fish passage? Canada dismissed the offer, because these salmon were not a commercial product above the boundary, only down at the river-mouth, for the US.
Such were the unfriendly times for fish.
For nearly a century, the US tribes have continued to work diligently. Here is their state-of-the-art refrigerated fish truck, parked on the edge of Grand Coulee dam’s massive reservoir, preparing to release several dozen spawning salmon in 2019, to study their movements. Several crossed the international boundary. Juveniles from those spawners made it as far as the first Canadian dam. A few of those made it past that barrier. Jubilation spread through the US tribes. “They want to come home,” one leader told me, his voice vibrating with emotion.
The upper Columbia River region in Canada is one of the most intensively developed for hydro-power on the continent. The dams and their profitable operations loop in to the equally profitable international 1964 Columbia River Treaty, currently under renegotiation. It’s no exaggeration to say that many billions and billions of dollars compete with the spiritual and biological richness of salmon.
Case in point: at this very moment, the Canadian operation of Columbia River Treaty dams for hydropower profit is causing the unecessary deaaths of resident, fresh-water spawning sockeye, proving yet again the outdated values of the friendly country. While local government tries to pin these deaths on the Treaty, the fact is that they have other choices. It may seem a shocking statement to some – Canada lagging behind the US on public policy – but that is the situation if you are a fish. Or, if you are an Indigenous person of the upper Columbia River region, in Canada. Like the ocean salmon, the Sinixt were declared “extinct” there in 1956. Only after a long court battle have they recently restored their rights. It’s time for the People, and the Salmon, to finally come home.