Canada and the United States initially signed the Columbia River Treaty in 1961. At first glance, the treaty seems straightforward, as its formal title suggests: "Treaty Between Canada and the United States of America Relating to Cooperative Development of the Water Resources of the Columbia River Basin." Under its terms, a series of dams would be built on the Columbia, principally to assist in flood control and power generation. These objectives do not seem unusual and the parties to the treaty were friendly countries sharing the longest undefended border in the world (and much else besides). Yet the treaty's negotiation and its impact were controversial. Evidence of the treaty's contentiousness includes the length of time it took to negotiate the treaty (20 years); the fact that it was signed not once but twice (first in 1961 and again in 1964); and the fact that a second related agreement or treaty was needed in Canada, between the federal government and its provincial counterpart in British Columbia. It is also worth bearing in mind that the treaty was seen very differently in Canada than it was in the United States.
The Canadian Columbia
The possibility of generating electricity on the Canadian section of the Columbia River received little attention until the 1950s. The only significant hydro developments in the region were on the Kootenay River, a tributary of the Columbia. A local utility, West Kootenay Power and Light, built its first dam on the river in 1898, and over the next 45 years would build another four.
Initially West Kootenay Power and Light was independently owned, but in 1905 the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) purchased control of the company. One of Canada's largest and most influential companies, the CPR was becoming very interested in the Kootenay region. The following year it created a mining/smelting subsidiary, the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company (Cominco). A smelter at Trail, B.C., some five miles north of northeastern Washington, was an integral part of this new venture and became the principal customer of West Kootenay Power and Light. While this close relationship between an energy-intensive industry and a power company made sense, it did not lead to more imaginative planning, perhaps due to the commercial assumptions on which it was based. The situation south of the border was quite different, as Matthew Evenden has pointed out:
"Unlike the United States, Canada had no state-led program to develop hydro resources. ... Whereas large U.S. federal projects rose on the Columbia and Tennessee Rivers in the late 1930s with importance for American wartime production, in Canada public and private utilities sought to follow rather than promote demand" (Evenden, 847).
The American Columbia
In the United States, the power potential of the Columbia River attracted the attention of various boosters, engineers, and others. The interest in the river was partly a reflection of a nation-wide project. In 1926 the federal government had directed the Army Corps of Engineers to estimate the cost of surveying all of the country's navigable rivers "with a view to the formulation of general plans for the most effective improvement of such streams for the purposes of navigation and the prosecution of such improvement in combination with the most efficient development of the potential water power, the control of floods, and the needs of irrigation" (Estimate of Cost, 1). Since the request came in House Document Number 308, the subsequent studies of various rivers were known as "308 Reports."
The 308 Report on the Columbia River appeared eight years later (Columbia River and Minor Tributaries, 1934). Its sub-title, "A General Plan for the Improvement of the Columbia River and Minor Tributaries for the Purposes of Navigation and Efficient Development of Its Water Power, the Control of Floods, and the Needs of Irrigation," summarizes the focus of its nearly 2,000 pages. The 308 Report was followed two years later by a second study, commissioned by the National Resources Committee and undertaken by the Pacific Northwest Regional Planning Commission. This volume dealt "with immediate and urgent problems in the Columbia Basin and particularly with the policies and organization which should be provided for planning, construction, and operation of certain public works in that area" (Ickes). These problems had arisen because the federal government was building major dams on the main stem of the Columbia -- the Bonneville and the Grand Coulee -- and the former project was nearing completion. After much discussion, the Bonneville Project Act was passed in 1937, which led to the creation of the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA).
This close scrutiny of the Columbia drew attention to the border's impact on the river's hydro potential. If large dams such as Grand Coulee and Bonneville were to reach maximum efficiency, substantial water storage upstream was necessary so that power could be generated throughout the year, not just when the river was at maximum flow. The same year that the Bonneville Project Act was passed, in 1937, an American engineer gave a paper titled "The International Boundary and Hydro-Electric Power Development in the Pacific Northwest" at a joint American-Canadian conference held in Vancouver, B.C. The border, he pointed out,
"divides the natural drainage area of the great Columbia River basin into two parts, and has become a barrier to properly coordinated, economic development of the enormous hydroelectric power resources in the Pacific Northwest" (Magnusson, 31).
He felt that the arbitrary division represented by the border prevented the sort of planning that would maximize the river's potential and concluded that joint Canadian-American engineering studies should be undertaken. The need to treat the river as a whole, re-imagining it within a common jurisdiction, was a theme that would be often repeated in the following years.
Legacy of War
The Second World War brought a new urgency to developing the Columbia River. The power produced by Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams enabled large amounts of electricity to go to aluminum production as well as to other war-related purposes. Not surprisingly, widespread recognition of the vital role played by energy in wartime encouraged plans for further development of the Columbia's potential. In 1943, for example, the Senate Committee on Commerce asked the Corps of Engineers to undertake a comprehensive survey of the Columbia River Basin in the United States. (A confidential chronology prepared in 1961 by one of the representatives who took a lead role in negotiating the 1961 treaty began with this 1943 reference.) The Corps report's Appendix A ("Columbia River Basin in Canada") opened by stating bluntly that "No report of a comprehensive nature on the development of the water resources of the Columbia River Basin in the United States would be complete without consideration being given to the large portion of the drainage area of the river in Canada and the large runoff from that area" (Columbia River and Tributaries, 351). Fifty pages later the appendix concluded that "Substantial storage ultimately must be developed in Canada if economic utilization of the Columbia River water resource is to be accomplished. ... provision must be made in the projects now planned so that they may be able to use the added dependable flow from such storage when it becomes available" (Columbia River and Tributaries, 403).
The Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 had created the International Joint Commission (IJC) as the body to consider such matters. In 1944, the IJC received a request from the American and Canadian governments that it "determine whether a greater use than is now being made of the waters of the Columbia River System would be feasible and advantageous" (Water Resources ..., 1). This request would ultimately lead to the negotiation of the Columbia River Treaty, although the first version of the treaty was not signed until January 1961.
While immediate strategic goals relating to wartime production dictated a greater focus on efficient development of the Columbia River, other broader trends were at work, trends which would also have an impact on the river. In August 1940, for example, with the German army occupying much of continental Europe, the American president and the Canadian prime minister met in Ogdensberg, New York, to discuss the security of Canada. This meeting resulted in establishment of the Permanent Joint Board of Defense, which in turn led to a much closer alliance between the two countries. The need to cooperate in developing the Columbia was part and parcel of the new wartime alliance. This atmosphere continued after the end of the Second World War as the Cold War underscored the need for resource security. One study that focused on the issue, published in 1952 as Resources for Freedom, included a brief but telling reference to the Columbia River basin. Under the heading "Untapped Hydro Potential in Canada," the report noted:
"A significant part of the potential hydroelectric power development in Canada is on the Columbia River and its tributaries in British Columbia. This can best be developed in cooperation with the United States. ... Only by coordinating the operations of storage reservoirs with the operations of downstream plants can maximum power production be realized" (Resources for Freedom, v. III, pp. 39-40).
With the 1944 referral to the IJC, cooperative development of the Columbia River likely became inevitable, although the precise form it would take was very much up in the air. Various proposals were considered by the IJC but the American side was keen to see the Canadian section of the river put to use as storage that would enhance the efficiency of the existing facilities on the American section. It followed that a significant question for those on the Canadian side was "what's in it for us?" The answer to that question was unclear.
The key issue was calculating the downstream benefit. The construction of Canadian storage dams on the upper Columbia would make the downstream American generating plants far more efficient and thus more productive. Without adequate storage, water overflowed during times of high flow, instead of being trapped upstream where it then could be released during periods of low flow. The lack of storage led to significant financial losses. Two senior BPA officials pointed out in 1966 that the BPA lost $47.5 million dollars in the years 1958 through to 1962. During the same period, it spilled water that might have earned close to $150 million dollars in revenue from power sales if that water had spun turbines and the electricity thereby generated had been sold (Luce and Kaseberg, 255). Put another way, Canadian storage could have turned that loss of close to $50 million into potential revenues of $150 million. If dams were constructed in Canada to provide such storage, what was an equitable way to determine this downstream benefit?
The question led to considerable disagreement between the Canadian and American representatives on the International Joint Commission, with the American side unwilling to concede the principle of Canada's right to downstream benefits. The principal document informing these discussions was the Boundary Waters Treaty, but legal scholars on either side of the border did not agree on its precise meaning, particularly over the issue of Canada's right to divert water before a river reached the border. Personal clashes between the respective chairs of the American and Canadian sections of the International Joint Committee also made negotiations difficult. In addition, the substantial American presence in Canada was causing anxiety among a growing number of Canadians.
The American government remained keenly interested in developing the Columbia, however. U.S. Senate hearings in 1956 and 1958 demonstrate the close attention the American government was paying to the Columbia River negotiations then underway as well as the tensions that accompanied these negotiations.
Getting to Yes
The pace of the Columbia River negotiations accelerated dramatically in 1959. In part this was because the American section of the International Joint Commission finally conceded Canada's right to a share of the downstream benefit (15 years after the initial Columbia reference). As soon as this concession was made, the American and Canadian governments asked the IJC to determine how to calculate those benefits. Specifically the IJC was asked for "its recommendations concerning the principles to be applied in determining: (a) the benefits which will result from the cooperative use of storage of waters and electrical interconnection with the Columbia River System; and (b) the apportionment between the two countries of such benefits more particularly in regard to electrical generation and flood control" (Smith and Dulles letters). In March that same year the International Columbia River Engineering Board produced its long-awaited report, Water Resources of the Columbia River Basin: Report to the International Joint Commission, and then in December the IJC submitted its report, "Principles for Determining and Apportioning Benefits from Cooperative Use of Storage of Waters and Electrical Interconnection Within the Columbia River System," to the Canadian and American governments. The stage was set for the formal negotiation of the Columbia River Treaty.
On January 25, 1960, Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker (1895-1979) announced in the House of Commons that "negotiations between Canada and the United States for the co-operative development of the Columbia River system are to commence in Ottawa on Thursday, 11 February" (Columbia River Treaty: Protocol ..., 57). In just under a year, Diefenbaker and Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) would formally sign the treaty, on January 17, 1961. It was one of the last official acts of the outgoing U.S. president. Not given to understatement, Diefenbaker proclaimed his hope that "in the years ahead this day will be looked back on as one that represents the greatest advance that has ever been made in international relations between countries" (Martin, 180). This turned out to be wishful thinking. For the next three years, the treaty -- and indeed the larger issue of Canadian-American relations -- provoked bitter public controversy in Canada.
A new mood of Canadian nationalism informed this controversy. Concern over increasing American influence in Canada contributed significantly to this growing nationalist sentiment. Nor was this shift in attitude lost on officials in the American government. In January 1959, for example, in a background memo an unnamed American official referred to "the present atmosphere of radical nationalism in Canada as championed by the [federal] Conservative Government" ("Paper Prepared ...," 746). And from the perspective of Canadian nationalists, the Columbia River Treaty constituted yet another sell-out (a term that had a wide currency at that point). Although this analysis was rejected by those closest to the negotiations -- who insisted that the terms of the treaty were fair and equitable for both parties -- many people were prepared to accept the charge.
The treaty was quickly ratified by the U.S. Senate, with only one vote against. Its ratification in Canada was going to take much longer. The greatest obstacle was not the public mood but the opposition of the government of British Columbia. Provincial governments, unlike states in the U.S., retained substantial jurisdiction over water resources. The man who led the provincial government throughout this period, Premier W. A. C. Bennett (1900-1979), had his own views of what was needed in any treaty dealing with the Columbia and he was not willing to compromise with the federal government or anyone else.
The Columbia in British Columbia
For some years Bennett had been interested in developing the Columbia. Not long after becoming premier he had supported a plan put forward in 1954 by an American company, the Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation. The Kaiser interests proposed constructing a dam on the Arrow Lakes on the Canadian section of the Columbia, at its own expense. It would then pass on to the province a percentage of the downstream benefits. To the provincial government, this seemed a relatively easy way to earn a tidy annual sum. Not only that, the plan called for no expenditure on the government's part. However, when the government announced its tentative agreement with Kaiser, the news was met with fierce criticism. Critics pointed out that the Canadian storage provided by damming the Arrow Lakes would create very cheap power downstream in the U.S., power that the Kaiser interests would use to manufacture aluminum. This would compete with aluminum produced in northern B.C., aluminum that did not enjoy the protection of a high American tariff. As far as the Canadian federal government was concerned, the Kaiser plan was not only antithetical to the national interest but also threatened to short-circuit the lengthy study of the Columbia River's future begun by the International Joint Commission a decade earlier. It swiftly introduced a bill -- the International Rivers Improvement Act -- that effectively killed the Kaiser proposal. Passed in the summer of 1955, the act stipulated that no one could construct a dam on an international river without a federal license, that is to say, without the approval of Ottawa.
Bennett continued to explore ways to promote regional development in his province and was soon enthusiastically supporting the plans of a Swedish industrialist to construct a large hydro-electric facility on the Peace River in northeastern B.C. The company's plans soon encountered a major stumbling block. No one questioned the vast hydro-electric potential of the Peace River system, but a guaranteed market for the considerable energy that it was going to generate was essential. Without long-term energy contracts in place, tangible evidence for would-be investors of the plan's financial feasibility, it would likely be impossible to raise the necessary capital. The province's leading energy company, B.C. Electric, was the obvious customer for Peace River power but it had already made plans for its future power supply. When pushed by Bennett, the company flatly refused to sign any long-term contract to purchase Peace River power. But the premier was not easily dissuaded from his plans for northern development. Increasingly he had come to see the Peace River power project as a keystone of his government's development strategy, something that dovetailed perfectly with his vision of the province's future as well as providing a lever with which to apply pressure on the federal and U.S. governments, in terms of the Columbia River talks.
Bennett's next move took everyone by surprise (including members of his cabinet). In one of his most controversial and unexpected acts, the premier announced in the provincial legislature on August 1, 1961, that he intended to take over both B.C. Electric and the Peace River Power Development Company. With hindsight, the move makes a good deal of sense, but at the time it was greeted with denunciation and disbelief. But because the nationalization of B.C. Electric was a long-standing goal of the left-leaning opposition in the province, the plan passed without a dissenting vote in the legislature.
As controversy raged in British Columbia over the government take-over of B.C. Electric, Bennett continued to participate in the Columbia River negotiations. Bennett had no objections to a Columbia River treaty. Indeed, the treaty was essential to his two-river policy. His concern was with the treaty's bearing on his overall energy strategy: He wanted to ensure that it did not hinder the development of the Peace. Two things, in particular, caused him anxiety. The first was the federal government's policy regarding electrical sales to the United States: Its opposition to long-term contracts involving the export of electricity went back many years. If Columbia River power could not be sold in the U.S., its only other market would be the Lower Mainland, and Bennett knew that the Vancouver region could not absorb power from both the Columbia and the Peace. It followed that failure to sell the Columbia power to the U.S. would render the Peace River project redundant, and that was something that Bennett was not prepared to accept. The other issue that concerned him was the treaty's financial arrangements: how much money was to flow into his government's purse. As far as Bennett was concerned, any money earned by B.C.'s rivers belonged to the province. Not only did he expect the money from the sale of the Columbia's downstream benefits, he also had very definite ideas about the price. The instability of the federal government would help Bennett to achieve most of what he was after.
An election in June 1962 ended Diefenbaker's majority in the House of Commons. His minority government after the election relied on the support of a minor party to remain in office. Four months later, Ottawa formally abandoned long-standing policy with the announcement that it would now encourage large long-term contracts for the export of surplus electricity. However, a second federal election, in the spring of 1963, ousted Diefenbaker and his Conservatives. Lester B. Pearson (1897-1972) and the Liberals formed a minority government, one that was to prove a good deal more durable than Diefenbaker's.
Revision and Ratification
Scholarly literature on the Columbia River treaty frequently takes its subject to be an exercise in rational decision-making. These studies tend to characterize the treaty as a model of "co-operative development", a phrase that featured in the treaty's formal title. But if one examines the specific obligations assumed by Canada as a consequence of the treaty, "co-operative development" seems to mean implementing longstanding American plans for the river. Thus Canada was to provide upstream water storage for U.S. dams and regulate the flow of this stored water so as "to achieve optimum power generation downstream in the United States of America" ("Treaty ...," Annex A). In addition, Canada would not reduce the Columbia's flow in any way that would detract from the flood control and hydro-electric power benefits, nor would it divert waters from the Columbia River basin without American consent. Canada also agreed to the flooding of its territory that would come with the construction of the Libby Dam in Montana.
Since the Canadian negotiators were not stupid, the question arises as to why they agreed to these terms. Political expediency -- in part, the need to bring closure to a very lengthy process -- is part of the answer. Twenty years is a lengthy period to negotiate any treaty, and this was an agreement between two nations with much more than the Columbia River watershed in common. Those in Canada who did the actual negotiating knew that they were dealing with people who had a clear and carefully developed agenda for the Columbia River. In addition, it was plain by late 1962 that the American side was growing impatient, nuclear power appeared to be emerging as a serious alternative to other forms of electrical generation, and the Canadian government was anxious to secure better access to the American market for Alberta's oil and gas. And relations between the two countries were under considerable strain after the Diefenbaker government refused to support the American government militarily at a key point during the Cuban missile crisis.
In January 1963, senior officials in Ottawa urged the federal government to move quickly and agree to an amended treaty, warning that failure to do so might prevent any treaty being signed. It was too late, however: the Diefenbaker government was in crisis and two weeks later the minority government collapsed. The subsequent election, in early April 1963, brought the federal Liberals to power. The Liberals had little interest in continuing what they regarded as a pointless fight with the B.C. government and Prime Minister Pearson was committed to improving relations with the U.S. Shortly after taking office, Pearson and key Canadian officials met with President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and others in Hyannis Port with Canada's ratification of the Columbia River Treaty assuming a prominent role in the discussions. Two months later, in July 1963, the public announcement came that Ottawa had come to terms with British Columbia.
Unlike several members of Diefenbaker's Cabinet, Pearson and his colleagues did not have an entrenched position on the still-unratified treaty. Soon talks were underway with the Americans as well. The Canadian side was led by Paul Martin, Pearson's Minister of External Affairs and a skilled negotiator, who worked closely with several senior B.C. cabinet ministers. The result of these discussions was a protocol -- in effect, a revised treaty -- signed on January 22, 1964, by Prime Minister Pearson and President Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973), with the enthusiastic support of Bennett and his government. The treaty gave Bennett pretty much what he wanted. The province received cash for the downstream benefits, money that would be used to pay for the construction of the three treaty dams in British Columbia. Since one of these, the Mica Dam, would also generate considerable electricity, Bennett made his well-publicized claim that the province would obtain free power from the Columbia, "And nothing is freer than free, my friend" (Mitchell, 324).
Controversy in the Kootenays
If the treaty was a triumph for Bennett -- he spoke of it as his greatest achievement -- others regarded it as a sell-out or worse. Opposition came from many quarters, although it was nearly unanimous in the Kootenays, the region that would feel its impact most heavily in the short as well as in the long term. The most obvious -- and controversial -- result was the plan to flood the Arrow Valley with the construction of what was then referred to as "High Arrow" dam (the dam at Arrow Lakes was eventually named Keenleyside Dam). Jack McDonald, an electrical engineer who lived in the region, spoke out against the plan:
"In making the financial assessment of High Arrow the value of the unspoiled Arrow Lakes valley to the people of this province has been completely ignored. It has apparently been assumed in all the calculations that its value before High Arrow is nil. If this natural resource is considered in the light of its true value to the present and future generations in its unspoiled state the figure would far outbalance the paltry sum for which we are being asked to destroy it. We should keep in mind that a resource such as the Arrow Lakes cannot be assessed in mere dollars and it should not be sacrificed unless an undisputable benefit is to be gained. High Arrow does not meet this requirement" (McDonald).
Richie Deane, like McDonald, was an electrical engineer employed by Cominco and he too opposed the High Arrow dam. Deane presented a thoughtful critique to the House of Commons' External Affairs Committee when it considered the final version of the treaty in the spring of 1964. By that time, however, the negotiations were effectively over: The federal government was unwilling to alter the terms of a document which had been so long in the making. Kootenay residents were left with no choice but to live with the treaty's consequences, even though their views had rarely been taken into account during the lengthy process that culminated in the final agreement of 1964. Only the lone voice of Bert Herridge, the region's member of parliament in the House of Commons, reminded the federal government of the extent of local opposition to the treaty.
Critics of the treaty argued that its provisions for the sale of downstream benefits effectively prevented the province from enjoying a very real economic advantage. Thus Dal Grauer, the head of B.C. Electric, opposed the Columbia River deal as well as Bennett's two-river policy, arguing:
"The potential power in British Columbia is from a number of sources and will therefore be at differing costs. It would seem to be sound public policy to keep the cheapest power for British Columbian use and to stimulate economic development here, rather than to export the least expensive power. This point seems to have particular relevance because the cheapest future power seems undoubtedly to be the downstream benefits of the Columbia River, and there might be some pressure from the United States to buy Canada's share at the American generating plants where it is produced, rather than returning it to Canada. To succumb to such pressure would, in my opinion, be a tragedy because most of British Columbia, unlike the states of the Pacific Northwest, has never had the stimulus of really cheap power. Now that the wheel of fortune in this respect is at last spinning in our direction, we should make every effort to take advantage of it" (Grauer, 283).
Such arguments failed to impress the provincial government. Nor did the government consider the environmental impacts of the Columbia and Peace River projects. Those people displaced by the treaty dams received negligible compensation and support.
The Treaty's Impact in Canada
Much literature on the Columbia River Treaty ignores the treaty's role in integrating the energy economies of Canada and the United States. This integration was hardly confined to energy, of course; the Canadian and American economies grew ever closer throughout the post-war era, culminating in the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement of 1988. However, the inevitability of this integration was (and is) hotly debated. Neo-liberal economists and political scientists tended to see the trend to continentalism as a reflection of the inexorable logic of technology and trade. For nationalists of all political stripes -- from the Conservative intellectual George Grant, whose Lament for a Nation became an unlikely best-seller in early 1965, to the left-wing faction of the New Democratic Party (NDP) known as the "Waffle" -- such an outcome could not be reconciled with their vision of an independent Canada, hence their opposition to all its manifestations.
The Columbia River Treaty laid the basis for a continental power network, and by doing so effectively closed off any possibility for a national power grid within Canada, an idea that had been discussed through the late 1950s and early 1960s. As its supporters noted, there were sound reasons for establishing a national grid, although the more limited goals of some provincial governments -- notably British Columbia -- raised obstacles that ultimately ended any hope for such a national project. Indeed, it might be argued that the various facets of the Columbia River Treaty contributed to the erosion of the idea of a centralized state structure in Canada.
Another casualty was the rational pursuit of economic development tied to cheap power, such as that pursued in Quebec and Ontario with their public utilities, as well as the more general assumptions that informed the post-war province-building projects in Alberta and Saskatchewan. These other strategies were informed by a more rational view of the provincial state and ways of promoting its growth. Bennett's plan of development, by contrast, was simply to encourage dam construction. Leaving aside the damage done to the Athabasca-Peace watershed, the primary result of Bennett's plan was to enable American industry in the Pacific Northwest to continue to receive cheap Columbia River power, while Peace River power was routed to Vancouver. Given that the American economy was more industrialized than that around Vancouver, the net effect of the Columbia River development was to continue the American advantage.