Three indigenous nations in Canada will join the ongoing Columbia River Treaty negotiations between the U.S. and Canada as "official observers," Global Affairs Canada announced in an April 26 news release.

Representatives of the Ktunaxa, Okanagan and Secwepemc nations will not participate in talks, but can now hear firsthand the official negotiations between the two countries to modernize the treaty, signed in 1964 as a flood control and hydropower agreement.

"By working together, we will ensure that negotiations directly reflect the priorities of the Ktunaxa, Okanagan, and Secwepemc Nations--the people whose livelihoods depend on the Columbia River and who have resided on its banks for generations," Chrystia Freeland, Canada's minister of foreign affairs, said in a statement. "This is an historic day and demonstrates our government's commitment to work in full partnership with Indigenous Nations," it said.

U.S. tribes still have not been invited to join--either as participants or observers. In an email to NW Fishletter, a State Department spokesperson for Western Hemisphere Affairs said, "We have no plans to change the general composition of the team. We will continue to engage the Tribes regularly as negotiations proceed. We value the Tribes' expertise and experience and are consulting with the Tribes throughout the negotiating process."

American Indian tribes in the U.S. had asked to sit at the table and become an official part of the discussions. They were disappointed when officials denied that request in April 2018, a few months before negotiations to modernize the treaty began, Jim Heffernan, policy analyst for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, told NW Fishletter. They sought reconsideration by the State Department and that request was again denied, he said.

Heffernan said the U.S. tribes have a history of being part of negotiations with Canada, having sat at the table when the U.S. and Canada agreed in the Pacific Salmon Treaty to cooperate in managing salmon throughout the region. He said while the tribes were not included in the first Columbia River Treaty negotiations, the State Department's promise to include ecosystem-based function as part of this treaty should qualify them to participate.

Tribal leaders, he said, respect the Bonneville Power Administration's knowledge of energy operations, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' expertise in flood risk management. Since tribes were the leading force behind including a healthy ecosystem as a third and equal objective in the treaty, "The tribes felt they would be the appropriate experts on this issue, and should be a the table," he said.

Heffernan added that, while Canada's First Nations won't be part of the official negotiations, "They will have an opportunity to hear everything going on." And although the four treaty tribes in the U.S. believe their rightful place is on the negotiating team, he said, "They would still welcome the opportunity to also be eyes and ears in the room."

He said tribal representatives who regularly meet with the State Department have not yet met to discuss the recent change in status for Canada's First Nations.

In official statements, leaders of those First Nations say they are pleased by the development.

"Minister Freeland's decision to accept the Indigenous Nations' proposal for observer level participation in the negotiations with the U.S. is very significant," Kathryn Teneese, chair of the Ktunaxa Nation Council said in a statement. "We are taking small but meaningful steps together on the road to reconciliation."

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, chairman of the Okanagan Nation Alliance, added, "The original Columbia River Treaty in 1964 excluded our Nations, and wreaked decades of havoc on our communities in the basin. Canada's unprecedented decision to include us directly in the US-Canada CRT negotiations is courageous but overdue and necessary to overcome the decades of denial and disregard."

K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.