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International Ethics & Treaty Conferences

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The Ethics & Treaty Project is hosted jointly by the Center for Environmental Law & Policy and Sierra Club with support from the Columbia Institute for Water Policy.  The project works with the Columbia River Treaty Round Table and Columbia Basin tribes and First Nations with natural resource rights and management authorities and responsibilities affected by the Columbia River Treaty.  (The Ethics & Treaty Project neither represents nor speaks for tribes and First Nations.)

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Pastoral Letter
Combining the Pastoral Letter with tools used by hospital ethics committees provides the framework we use for promoting stewardship and justice principles in modernizing the Columbia River Treaty.

The project’s goal is to promote principles of stewardship and justice in modernizing the Columbia River Treaty, which governs water and dam management on the Columbia River.  The United States and Canada can update and modernize the Treaty as early as 2024, and represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change how the Columbia River is managed.  Our specific goals are to restore the river (including the return of salmon and other native fish species to areas now blocked by dams), and remedy historic injustices done to the Columbia Basin tribes & First Nations caused by the dam-building era in the Columbia Basin.

Based on the Columbia River Pastoral Letter by the 12 Roman Catholic Bishops of the international watershed combined with tools used by hospital ethics committees, in May 2014 Gonzaga University hosted a conference “Righting Historic Wrongs” on the Columbia Basin.  The conference provided a forum for religious and indigenous leaders, scientists, and conservationists to discuss the impact of dams – acknowledging benefits while focusing on the wrenching damage and remedies through modernizing the Columbia River Treaty.

There is a short (and moving) film of the conference that you can view:  One River.  Ethics Matter.

From the Gonzaga conference issued the Declaration on Ethics & Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty, which has been signed by tribal, First Nation and religious leaders, as well as hundreds of people from throughout the Basin.  (see: Declaration seeks inclusion of tribes in updated Columbia River Treaty)

In the summer of 2014, the project helped in supporting a series of 17 multi-faith prayer vigils starting in Astoria and moving up the Columbia River each day to the source of the river at Canal Flats in British Columbia.

On September 23, 2014, the Declaration and Pastoral Letter were transmitted to President Obama and Prime Minister Harper with a cover letter signed 21 religious and indigenous leaders, representing all Columbia Basin tribes and First Nations in the Columbia Basin.  This letter requested political leaders to renegotiate the Treaty consistent with the Declaration.  Since then, additional faith leaders have voiced support for the Declaration.  (see:  Tribes, religious leaders call for Columbia River Treaty updates)

Kettle Falls. Kettle Falls was an incredibly rich salmon fishing spot and gathering place for the Tribes since time immemorial, and is flooded by Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir behind Grand Coulee dam. (Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture photo)
Kettle Falls. Kettle Falls was an incredibly rich salmon fishing spot and gathering place for the Tribes since time immemorial, and is flooded by Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir behind Grand Coulee dam. (Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture photo)

On June 11, 2015, one week prior to the release of the Encylical Laudato Si’, sixteen religious leaders sent a second request letter to Prime Minister Harper and President Obama asking for action on the Treaty. As The Rev. Jessica Crist, Bishop of the Montana Synod, ELCA, noted, “The Columbia River is the historic lifeblood of the tribes who have lived in its watershed from time immemorial.  And rivers are the lifeblood of the planet.  As a matter of justice, and as a matter of survival, I join with others across the watershed in urging the modernization of the Columbia River Treaty.” (see news release)

Harper and Obama received an additional letter from national religious leaders representing the Anglican Church of Canada,  Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church. (see news release)

In October the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Methodist Church endorsed the Declaration, “to stand with the tribal leaders and faith communities to do what is right.”

In October 2015 in Portland, Leotis McCormack (of the Nez Perce Nation and Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission) and Bishop William Skylstad welcomed people to our second “One River, Ethics Matter” conference.  The Portland conference focused on the direct connection between the 1948 Vanport Flood and the destruction and permanent flooding of river valleys in the Upper Columbia from the Treaty dams.  In the face of unfolding climate change, speakers explored how we meet our justice and stewardship responsibilities — including revisiting flood risk management in the Columbia River Basin. You can watch a brief film of this conference:  Portland – One River, Ethics Matter.

In March 2016 in Boise, Charlotte Rodrique (Burns-Paiute Tribal Chairwoman) and Martin Wells Bishop (Eastern Washington-Idaho Lutheran Synod) opened the river ethics conference hosted by Boise State University focusing on the Snake River, the Columbia’s major tributary.  Two processes were the focus: re-negotiation of the U.S.-Canada Columbia River Treaty, and re-licensing of Idaho Power Company’s Hells Canyon Complex of dams.  The costs of Snake River dams to tribes, and the exclusion of tribes from the decisions to build them, and from their governance since, are not well known.

In May 2017 in Revelstoke, Jeanette Armstrong (author, educator, artist, and activist involved with the En’owkin Centre), John Corriveau (Bishop, OFM Cap, Nelson Diocese, Roman Catholic Church), and John Privett (Archbishop of Kootenay and Metropolitan of British Columbia and Yukon, Anglican Church of Canada) opened the conference jointly hosted by Mir Centre for Peace, Selkirk College, Okanagan College Faculty Association, and the North Columbia Environmental Society.  In 1964, without consulting local people who would be impacted, the Canadian and British Columbia governments approved the Columbia River Treaty — and “Treaty dams.”  Devastation followed.

In 2018, the ethics conference series moves to Montana.

Through this work, the Ethics & Treaty Project seeks endorsement of a basic concept:  that human interaction with water should be guided by ethical principles of stewardship and justice.


John Osborn MD                   The Rev. W. Thomas Soeldner
509.939-1290                         509.270-6995

Grand Coulee dam
Grand Coulee dam built by the United States with the approval of Canada, blocked the return of salmon and permanently flooded Kettle Falls. Work is underway to restore passage for salmon so they may return home to ancestral spawning waters in the Upper Columbia and elsewhere in the Columbia River Basin.

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