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Water is released through the outlet tubes at Grand Coulee Dam in Washington. B.C., which is entitled to half of the revenues from downstream electrical generation on the Columbia River, is splitting the revenue with three First Nations groups.Nicholas K. Geranios/The Associated Press

British Columbia will give roughly $50-million a year in hydroelectricity revenues to three First Nations under a new sharing agreement concluded this week, more than six decades after the signing of a Columbia River treaty altered the province’s landscape and waterways.

For years after dams were built to control floods and generate power, the Canadian federal government delivered cans of Spam to Indigenous groups to compensate for the salmon that disappeared from the upper Columbia.

Now, the revenue-sharing agreement creates a new channel for allocating resources to Indigenous groups in a province already sharing hundreds of millions of revenues from lotteries, forestry and resource extraction.

The new agreement provides 15 per cent of British Columbia’s U.S. hydroelectric revenues to be split equally between the Ktunaxa, Secwépemc and Syilx Okanagan Nations. The province is entitled to half of the revenues from downstream electrical generation on the Columbia River, whose waters are jointly managed by Canada and the U.S.

The value of that entitlement depends on electricity prices, which are currently so high that each of the three nations expects to receive $18- to $20-million per year.

“It’s the largest single-source revenue stream the seven bands of the Okanagan Nation have had access to since colonialism,” said Jay Johnson, chief negotiator and adviser to the chief’s executive council of the Syilx Okanagan.

The four-year agreement forms part “of an ongoing journey that we’re all involved in toward recognition of past wrongs,” said Kathryn Teneese, chair of the Ktunaxa Nation Council. Revenue-sharing “is one way of doing that.” She called it a small step toward “what needs to occur in terms of the whole discussion around reconciliation.”

The agreement was concluded in the midst of negotiations on the modernization of the Columbia River Treaty, in which the U.S. has sought to slash the hydroelectricity revenue it provides to B.C. That gives Canadian First Nations a new stake in the outcome of those negotiations, which are expected to conclude later this year.

Indigenous groups in B.C. have won a seat at the table in those treaty talks. They have pressed for a new deal that will see the Columbia River managed to support salmon reintroduction, in addition to the traditional use of the system’s dams and reservoirs for flood control and electricity generation.

“We’re reaching beyond a history of simple consultation” with Indigenous groups in Canada, said Sean Markey, director of the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University. The ground is shifting toward nations whose “standing in these negotiations has been significantly enhanced.”

Unlike some other parts of Canada, much of B.C. is unceded Indigenous land that is not covered by treaties. In 2019, B.C. became the first province to put into law the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. It has since agreed to share revenues from several industries.

In the 2021-2022 fiscal year, B.C. forestry revenue-sharing programs transferred $58.8 million to First Nations, a figure it has since agreed to more than double. Between 2019 and 2021, the province shared $123-million in gaming revenues. Further agreements have provided benefits to individual groups like the Blueberry River First Nations, which has received tens of millions of dollars per year in oil and gas revenues, as well as a new say over industrial development.

“It’s really a rapidly evolving area and the proportions that are being shared are certainly going up as First Nations become more sophisticated in their negotiations,” said Tom Gunton, who is co-director of the Community Benefits and Impact Assessment Lab at Simon Fraser University.

Agreements with mining companies, for example, provide revenues to some First Nations that can reach 20 to 30 per cent of profits.

Negotiators are also pushing into new areas for revenue sharing. “Property tax might be one,” said Prof. Gunton. Take a pipeline that passes through Indigenous land but pays property taxes to local governments, for example. First Nations “certainly have a justification” to argue for a share of those revenues, he said.

For Indigenous groups along the Columbia River, meanwhile, the sharing of hydroelectric revenues offers a form of historical redress. The new funds could be used for housing, suicide prevention, and programs for substance use and mental wellness, said Keith Crow, chief of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band.

He recalled the discovery of remains from a person who had lived in the region some 750 years ago.

“We actually had a tooth assessed. And 50 per cent of her diet was salmon,” he said. “That says a lot. Taking the salmon away has been a huge impact to the way of life of our people.”

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