Recent comments by Minister Bill Bennett in the Vancouver Sun about the future of the Columbia River Treaty have raised serious red-flags for the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA). Amongst other things, Minister Bennett suggested the Treaty should continue into the future, essentially in the same form it has been to date, stating that “the treaty has been a huge success.”
The Columbia River Treaty has had devastating effects on Aboriginal Title and Rights, including throughout the Arrow Lakes area which is vitally important to the ONA.
These include flooding of traditional lands and village sites, massive interference with cultural heritage resources and severe impacts on hunting, fishing and gathering rights. The Treaty was signed and ratified in 1963 with no First Nations engagement, involvement, or consent.
“The Treaty has disrupted our way of life in ways that very few other things have. When the Province came to us last year to discuss potential renewal of the Treaty we made it clear how serious any decisions about the Treaty are and that the highest levels of engagement with us must occur,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Okanagan Nation Alliance. “While we have been trying to follow a general path for discussions with the Province and Canada, the statements of Minister Bennett, as well as indications we are getting from others, suggest that the Crown is moving to minimize our involvement and concerns and push ahead with its own status quo agenda,” he added.
Some years ago Minister Bennett clearly understood some of the depths and complexities of the Treaty. As he stated in 2003 “So 2,300 people were displaced and 60,000 hectares of high-value valley bottom land were flooded. Numerous First Nations archeological and burial sites were submerged or buried.” That reality has not changed.
“The Crown should not have comfort that they are going to be able to push ahead with their agenda for the future of the Treaty without substantially addressing in concrete ways the relationship between First Nations and the Treaty,” said Grand Chief Phillip. “I encourage Minister Bennett to recognize that the future course of the Treaty – whether termination, renewal, or amendment – must be set with us,” he added.
The ONA was formed in 1981 as the inaugural First Nations government in the Okanagan which represents the eight member communities: Okanagan Indian Band, Upper Nicola Band, Westbank First Nation, Penticton Indian Band, Osoyoos Indian Band, Lower Similkameen Indian, Band Upper Similkameen Indian Band and the Colville Confederated Tribes on issues of common concern. Each community is represented by their Chief or Chair through the ONA Chiefs Executive Council (CEC).