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The region united to create Columbia Basin Trust

The CBT’s origin story makes it a unique entity. After a complete lack of consultation with the people and communities most affected by the Columbia River Treaty, the region banded together to negotiate the creation of the organization that provides access to its benefits
The Arrow Lakes generating station/Hugh Keenleyside Dam, jointly owned by Columbia Power Corporation and Columbia Basin Trust, won one of three Blue Planet prizes presented by the International Hydropower Association in 2005 for “social, environmental and technical excellence.” (photo courtesy Wikipedia)

The Columbia Basin Trust has large presence in the lives of residents of southeast B.C. The non-profit provides hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to projects and initiatives in the Canadian portion of that vast geography defined by the drainage system of the Columbia and Kootenay rivers.

The work the Trust (CBT) does, the challenges it faces and the plans it will make, will be the subjects of discussion in a series of public events — three symposia — to be held in Cranbrook, Trail and Golden towards the end of May.

The Trust is very much a “by-the-people, for-the-people” organization, formed in response to the social changes created by the Columbia River Treaty, ratified by the U.S. and Canada in 1964. The treaty led to the construction of three storage dams in the Columbia River Basin in B.C. and one in Montana, for flood control and power production in both countries.

While this led to ongoing economic benefits for both B.C. and the U.S., it also had a hugely negative effect on people and communities in the Basin region. Towns and farms were flooded out, and some 2,300 people displaced.

Remarkably, all this was done without any consultation with the people most affected.

Historically, it is not an unusual story in and of itself. Building big dams has always displaced populations and disrupted landscapes. But one of the things that makes the Trust such a unique organization is its own creation story. It took an entire region coming together to negotiate the creation of Columbia Basin Trust, in the early 1990s. Up until then, the majority of the benefits of the Columbia River Treaty were being enjoyed outside of the Columbia River Basin itself.

“It wasn’t just because of the Columbia River Treaty and the impacts on our region, but really that lack of any meaningful consultation,” said Johnny Strilaeff, President and CEO of Columbia Basin Trust. “Back in the ‘60s, the word ‘consultation’ meant something quite different than it does in a contemporary sense. There really was no opportunity for those most negatively impacted to have a voice.”

That’s just one part of the history that makes CBT unique.

“It took an entire region coming together,” Strilaeff said. “Think about that — in today’s world, it’s hard to get 10 people to agree on something, let alone 160,000-plus in an area the size of Austria. It wasn’t about which community felt it was more negatively impacted than another. There was true solidarity across the Basin.”

The fact that the region of the Columbia Basin actually negotiated the creation of CBT with the province was unprecedented.

“It wasn’t a top-down initiative from Victoria,” Strilaeff said. “It was really this region, that ‘we want to create an organization through which we can start to share in those benefits.’ So much so, that this region drafted the law that created Columbia Basin Trust.

“That had not happened before, and to the best of my knowledge has not happened since. And I don’t think Victoria would be very enamoured of that [today].”

Because it was the initial lack of consultation with residents that was the genesis of the Columbia Basin Trust, embedded in the legislation is a requirement that CBT engage with Basin residents when it sets its priorities, its plans and its strategies for how it is going to go about doing its work.

“It is not a moral obligation.” Strilaeff said. “It’s not an ethical obligation. We’re required by law to speak with Basin residents, to understand what they find to be most important in their communities, and to use that feedback to use resources both human and financial, to support communities into the future. That’s the process that we’re working through right now.”

The Columbia Basin encompasses a huge region, indeed, a considerable fraction of Canada. It’s all the watersheds that flow into the Columbia River in Canada. So, basically the East and West Kootenays, from Rossland in its southwestern corner, over to the Alberta border and up as far as Revelstoke, and the traditional territories of the Ktunaxa, Lheidli T’enneh, Secwépemc, Sinixt and Syilx Nations.

CBT provides funding and delivers economic, social, environmental and cultural programs that support a broad public good within that region.

Upon the creation of the Trust in 1995, the Province endowed it with $250 million, of which $250 million was earmarked for construction of power projects. $45 million was reinvested.

As well, the Province transferred another $250 million to Columbia Power Corporation, the Trust’s joint venture partner, for power projects.

CBT earns money by investing in power projects, Basin businesses and market securities. The interests on investments, and the profits from Columbia Power Corporation — “the returns on sales of power from the projects we’ve built, as well as other investments,” Strilaeff said — is where the money comes from for the social, economic and environmental benefits for the residents of the Basin.

“It was this region that negotiated the creation of this organization, and it’s this region that will determine how this organization can best support the range of initiatives, programs, projects and supports in our communities,” Strilaeff said.

Which brings us to the Trust’s upcoming series of public symposia, taking place in Cranbrook (May 26 and 27, College of the Rockies), Trail (June 9 and 10, Trail Memorial Centre) and Golden (June 23 and 24, Golden Civic Centre).

Sharing individual views about the Trust’s future has already been the focus of the Trust’s community engagement conversations that have been taking place around the region over the past month.

“When it comes to the symposia, we’re actually going to have a bit of a different conversation, that will build on what we have heard through the community engagement process,” Strilaeff said. “It will talk a little bit more about the ‘How.’

“We will be taking all the feedback from the community sessions, and start through that analysis, and in the meantime we’re going to talk with residents about some of the other questions that the Trust needs to grapple with over time, and solicit some thoughts and feedback on that.”

An example of some of the questions to be discussed are how can the Trust continue to support both larger and smaller communities in the region so that all residents can continue to benefit.

“How can we effectively do that?” Strilaeff said. “Some of our large communities have very sophisticated and well-organized community organizations. That’s not always the case in some of our rural communities. So how can the Trust support small and large communities, and do so effectively and with some balance.

“We’ll take all this feedback, as well as other feedback we’ve received over the years, and our board is going to have to make some decisions not only on where it is we’re going to focus our energies over time but how we’re going to most effectively do that work.”

The Trust usually tried to hold these events every three years, until the pandemic intervened. The last symposia were held in 2017.

Because of this long time lapse, Strilaeff added, there will also be a celebratory aspect to the symposia.

“It’s not all work, not play. We do have some great events and celebrations included that I’m sure all folks will enjoy. We’re going to have some fun too. Serious topics, but we’re also going to enjoy time with each other.”

Rick Mercer, comedian, television personality, political satirist and author, is scheduled to be keynote speaker at the events.

For more information on the CBT’s upcoming symposia, go to

Barry Coulter

About the Author: Barry Coulter

Barry Coulter had been Editor of the Cranbrook Townsman since 1998, and has been part of all those dynamic changes the newspaper industry has gone through over the past 20 years.
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