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A man crosses a bridge over the Columbia River in Revelstoke, B.C., on March 14, 2010.

Daniel Hayduk/The Canadian Press

Three B.C. First Nations have marked what is being called a “historic moment” after joining international talks to modernize a treaty over a major river flowing between Canada and the United States.

Representatives of the Ktunaxa, Syilx/Okanagan and Secwepemc Nations participated as observers when the most recent negotiations on the Columbia River Treaty were held in Washington last week.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland announced in April that the three First Nations would join the seventh round of talks and Indigenous representatives are to return when discussions reconvene in Cranbrook, B.C., in September.

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Canada and the United States are seeking to update the 1961 treaty that governs development and operation of dams in the Upper Columbia River basin and manages power and flood control for both countries.

First Nations representatives had already been working with the federal and provincial governments on treaty strategies, but their participation last week marked the first time they were present in the negotiating room.

The Columbia River – the fourth-largest by volume in North America – begins in the Rocky Mountains near Invermere, B.C., and runs through the province into Washington State before cutting west along the Oregon boundary to the Pacific Ocean.

A joint statement from Indigenous representatives says much work lies ahead to modernize the treaty, but they are pleased with what they observed.

“This precedent-setting role as observers builds on and enhances our important work with Canada and B.C. over the last two years,” says the statement from the Ktunaxa, Syilx/Okanagan and Secwepemc Nations.

“We are confident that we can continue to contribute positively to these negotiations and help realize the First Nations’ goals for meaningful outcomes … that are of critical importance to our nations and homelands.”

Katrine Conroy, B.C.’s minister responsible for the Columbia River Treaty, called the round of talks a “historic moment” and a “significant step forward.”

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She said inclusion supports the British Columbia government’s commitment to reconciliation, and the recent talks took stock of progress made since discussions on the treaty’s modernization began in May 2018.

“The latest discussions focused on flood-risk management, power and adaptive management,” Ms. Conroy said in a release.

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