Film takes a new look at dam and flood control intervention on the Columbia River

Thursday, May 23rd, 2024 1:24pm


Image Caption

Dam, water storage and hydro construction on the Columbia River has had deep and lasting impact on the Indigenous peoples and ecosystem on both sides of the Canada/U.S. border.
By Odette Auger
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Changing Course: A River's Journey of Reconnection is a new documentary that explores the significance of the Columbia, a 2,000-km river that begins in the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia and empties into the Pacific Ocean in Oregon.

Changing Course offers perspective on the importance of the freshwater ecosystem along the river, the transboundary cooperation necessary to protect and restore the ecology of the river for the living beings that rely on it, the management, or mismanagement, of the Columbia since the 1940s, and the cultural, social and economic values at play when planning for that management into the future.

We hear from Indigenous Elders, knowledge keepers and people of critical influence from the Secwépemc, Ktunaxa, Sylix, Sinixt and other First Nations whose history is intertwined with the Columbia, and whose wellbeing is reliant on a healthy river system.

Director, producer Jon O’Riordan speaks to such luminaries as former chief of St. Mary's Band, Sophie Pierre, about the importance of the river to her people and others of the region. The commissioner of the British Columbia Treaty Commission from 2009 to 2015, Pierre was also instrumental in forming the Ktunaxa Nation Tribal Council in the 1970s.

Filmmaker O’Riordan is the former deputy minister of the Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management in British Columbia. He is an associate fellow at the University of Victoria’s Centre for Global Studies and research director with the Climate Adaptation Team at Simon Fraser University. He joined the Water Sustainability Project in 2007 as a strategic water policy advisor, focusing on provincial water policy reform and the ecological governance of water management.

Among the many Indigenous voices included in the film are Clarence Louie, celebrated chief of the Osoyoos Indian Band, Nathan Matthew, who served as chief of the Simpcw Nation for more than 20 years and who, most recently, has led efforts for self-determination in Indigenous education, and Kathryn Teneese, Ktunaxa Nation Chair and that nation’s chief negotiator for ongoing treaty negotiations with Canada and British Columbia.

Changing Course documents the impact of eight decades of human intervention on the Columbia River, the major dams and water storage constructions that eliminated wild salmon from the main stem of the river in Canada, and how the loss of that salmon “cut the heart out of Indigenous culture throughout the basin,” reads show notes of the film.

The network of hydroelectric dams had a catastrophic impact on the Indigenous peoples on both sides of the border, the documentary explains. 

coolee dam
Salmon were blocked on the main stem of the Columbia River by the Grand Coulee Dam. The salmon in the Okanagan River are now the only direct descendants in Canada of Pacific salmon in the Columbia River system.

Shelly Boyd is a Sinixt leader and tribal member of the Colville Confederated Tribes. She has worked with conservation organizations to permanently protect Sinixt cultural heritage sites and ecologies.

"We could walk across the river on the back of salmon,” Boyd remembers her great-grandmother saying about the pre-dam bounty of the river.

Communal traps yielded hundreds of pounds of salmon daily at Kettle Falls, said Boyd.

“They would pull that trap up six to eight times a day and it would have about 200 pounds worth of salmon every time.” That salmon run provided for First Nations families for the entire year.

The film tells of the floods in the late 1940s that resulted in 50 deaths, the evacuation of 120,000 people, 38,000 homes lost, and damages to human property amounting to $100 million. Those floods became a turning point for flood control in the Columbia River basin.

And it led to the Columbia River Treaty between Canada and the United State in the 1960s. In the ensuing years the construction of four major dams on the river and more than 470 hydro facilities has disrupted the Columbia River and its tributaries.

Changing Course explores how the First Nations of the Columbia Basin are working together to restore lands and the ecosystem damaged by those hydro and flood control systems. They are working to rebuild salmon stocks, which in 2022 saw a return of more than 600,000 sockeye salmon to the Okanagan River system, which branches off of the Columbia before the Grand Coulee Dam in the state of Washington.

“This work blends traditional Western science with local Indigenous knowledge and involves experts from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities,” says narrator Francis Litman, co-producer of Changing Course. She is founder of Creatively United for the Planet Society, which released the film on its YouTube channel

Today, people along the river are seizing the opportunity to rethink a changed management of the river and the necessity of a unified approach by the U.S. and Canada to view the Columbia as a single ecosystem.

Wayne Christian

Kukpi7 (chief) Wenecwtsin, Wayne Christian, (Secwépemc, Syilx) said that unity must include representation of Indigenous nations sharing responsibility for stewarding the Columbia River basin's resources.

Long marginalized in discussions, Indigenous peoples are now “observers of the process” in the renewal of the Columbia River Treaty, said Wenecwtsin.

The province of B.C. has formally established its own legislation to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Wenecwtsin said that should mean honoring First Nations sovereignty with meaningful engagement in resource management.

In the film, scientists, conservationists and Indigenous knowledge keepers emphasize the need to respond to evolving environmental conditions that will impact water levels on the Columbia River. Key, they say, is a redesigned dam system to regulate water in a more natural way.

"It will take a whole redesign of the system, because the way it is right now is specifically to produce maximum flow” for hydroelectricity, Wenecwtsin said.

Shelly Boyd
Shelly Boyd of the Colville Confederated Tribes.

When Boyd thinks about the pre-dam era and her great-grandmother, she “thinks about the abundance of what that would be like. My grandmother went there every year” for the salmon run. “It was a huge gathering.”

“It’s like us trying to imagine the sky never being blue again,” she said of the impact the dam system had on her people. “We can't even imagine that because we’ve had it our whole life. That’s what it was like for them to suddenly be without salmon.”

Traditional fishing grounds vanished beneath the waters. Eighty per cent of village sites were lost completely, said Boyd. “And that includes archeology.”

In the United States, “because they acknowledged our nation still lived,” Boyd said thousands of grave sites were moved before dams flooded valleys.

“They were going to get inundated and washed up.”

“Canada didn't acknowledge that we still existed, so they didn't move any of them. And so, even to this day, we get washed up.”

Wenecwtsin said in an interview with Windspeaker, Indigenous people should have a say in the way dams manipulate water levels. “Raising and lowering water levels causes erosion,” he said, leading to uncovered burial sites.

“It happens every year, because the area was quite populated and the burial of our ancestors and our people there is the indication of that,” he said.

“People think we no longer live there, but the thing is, we don't live there because we can't live there,” he said.

He receives calls when ancestors’ remains are exposed, and his nation has developed a protocol to handle those moments.

“It truly is like a burial process ceremony, working with the ancestors, the spirits to help let them know that we're still there and we're helping them.”

While details are private, the “essence of it is taking people that have been exposed and disturbed, making sure that they're okay now and let them know that we're here with them and we can continue to walk with them.”

Boyd said she holds hope for the river's restoration through initiatives such as the Whoosh technology to suck salmon upstream past dams, new styles of fish ladders and tunnels allowing fish through.

Wenectwsin says settlers saw water as a resource to be used for irrigation, industry, and profit.

“They don't see it as an entity, a living entity that's been here since the beginning of time. So, it's that education process again to get them some understanding, to respect that.”

The word for “hydro” in the Secwepemctsín language translates to mean “a transformation of matter into energy,” said Wenecwtsin. “And people don't realize when they turn on the light, where does that come from? What price are we actually paying?”

“We have a different relationship with the river that was interrupted,” said Wenecwtsin.

“We have to start altering our thinking and our mindset about hydro, the production of hydroelectricity, and non-Indigenous people seeing hydro as life. We see water as life, not hydro,” he said.