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Columbia River Conferences raise ethics, voices


More than 600 people in the U.S., Canada and around the world participated online last fall in the eighth "One River Ethics Matter" Conference on the renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty.

Chief Chris Derickson of the Westbank First Nation began by recognizing "all life is precious."

"To rescue people and animals, we need to rethink the relationship and inextricable link of the natural world, Columbia River, the tribes and everyone," he said.

At the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, he teaches metallurgists, engineers and miners about indigenous connections to the natural world and environmental ethics.

"People are hungry for knowledge of the natural world," said Chris.

He invites people to rethink how they relate to ecosystems and see that indigenous and non-indigenous people have responsibility for fish, air and water, so they will do less environmental harm.

Dialogue over the years has led to better relationships of all people living along the Columbia River, he said.

Lesley Cormack, deputy vice chancellor and principal of the University of British Columbia-Okanagan campus in Kelowna, B.C., since 2020, said the combined impact of colonization and climate change calls for thoughtful decisions for ecology and indigenous people.

"The focus on social and environmental justice brings indigenous and academic voices together to revitalize indigenous efforts to restore salmon for the full length of the river," she said. "It's important for the Syilx nation to rectify mistakes by promoting indigenous perspectives so the river can sustain life."

John Osborn, coordinator of the Ethics and Treaty project, is a physician who works to improve the quality of ethical decision-making in caring for both patients and sick river systems. He spoke of the importance of restoring ntytyix (salmon) to the Okanagan and Upper Columbia Rivers.

He said eight conferences have focused on the Columbia River Treaty ratified in 1964, and the treaty review process that is underway until 2024. He urges a framework that emphasizes social and environmental justice, collaboration towards the common good, and truth and reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.

John said the 1964 treaty was an engineering agreement with two purposes: hydropower and flood management. River ethics consultations since 2014 in Spokane have supported indigenous peoples, explored the ethical dimensions of the treaty, and called for a third purpose: river health or "ecosystem-based function."

"Our work brings together three ethics processes: 1) a consultative process used in clinical ethics, 2) a transformative process from the Catholic Bishops' Columbia River Pastoral Letter and 3) South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation process," John said.

The pastoral letter's sections set the agenda: "Rivers of our Moment," "Rivers through our Memory," "Rivers of our Vision" and "Rivers as our Responsibility."

In 2021, the "Rivers of our Moment" panel looked at their relationship to water and to the river.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), said the Columbia River began with glacial floods up to 15,000 years ago and has a special place for indigenous people.

"Stories, teachings, ceremonies and prayers are tied to the river and water," he said. "Integrated into our culture is respect for water's healing powers, respect for the river, responsibility to be caretakers and our laws," he said.

"For millennia, indigenous people were on the forefront of water issues and now appreciate joining many voices," he said. "Historically, the river is a metaphor for the relationship of people. The river's health is a barometer for how we have done.

"We have fallen short as salmon no longer migrate. Policy makers have different economic priorities—electricity, agriculture and navigation. In the climate crisis, challenges will intensify as erosion, heat, drought and glaciers impact crops, factories and fish," said Stewart.

He is concerned his 15 grandchildren may not know about B.C.'s robust rivers, abundant fish and pristine forests, because extractive industries, clearcutting and wildfires have devastated many areas.

The conference gives him hope as people share in the sacred purpose of being stewards of the river.

Syilx scholar Jeanette Armstrong, who wrote Syilx Cultural Perspectives, said the Syilx ethic goes back thousands of years. The Syilx are a Salish tribe also known as the Okanagan. Their territory spans the U.S.-Canada boundary in Washington and British Columbia.

"Salish were one people, evolving into different language groups but retaining ethics for the river," said Jeannette, whose mother and grandmother were born at Kettle Falls. Her great-grand uncle was Salmon Chief there. Her uncle told of tears shed as the waterfalls were flooded in June 1940 by the Grand Coulee Dam.

"I accompanied my mother to Kettle Falls since I was 14 to call the salmon home, because after the dam was built there were no salmon," she said.

Now her grandsons gaff for sockeye salmon near the McIntyre Dam on the Okanagan River, a tributary of the Columbia River.

"We are connected to the river and responsible for the salmon. Ceremonies go on all over the river system and spiritually unify our people over thousands of years. Salmon chiefs assured equal distribution. People worked together as they moved north and south," she said, challenging "colonial constructs of reserves and the border to exclude our people from decision making."

Jeannette is glad that common spiritual ethics bring the Syilx together with allies in faith communities and academics.

"We need to work together," she said. "The river is for all to come together."

Catholic Bishop Greg Bittman of the Diocese of Nelson, B.C., said the Columbia River unites people on two sides of the border. Rather than being a river that divides territories, it crosses the border.

"We need to unite in our caring for and our concern about the river. Ethics matter," he said, explaining that the Greek word, "ethos" is about the way people live.

"Our way of living is important beyond our own lives. No one is alone. All have impact on everyone else," he said. "We do not live to ourselves.  Ethics govern our behavior as part of society. Medical ethics, bioethics and business ethics are about our way of living because they affect all around us.

"Christian ethics are bound to the purpose of God. The Old Testament is our moral guide and gives us a strong sense of the community of Israel and human relationships," he said.

"In the New Testament, Jesus teaches values that are to guide our way of life," Bishop Greg said. "Ethics are about right relationships with earth and the world we live in, loving God and loving neighbors.

Ethics call for people to examine their relationship with water," he said. "Biblically God moved the waters to create the world. Water is a symbol of spiritual good from God to cleanse and sustain. It's associated with life, baptism, health, hygiene and power."

With climate change, Bishop Greg said water may be less abundant and must not be taken for granted.

Recognizing that, the United Nations declared in 2010 that access to clean drinking water is a human right.

"We are called to use resources responsibly and to care for creation rather than exploiting it," he said.

Pope Francis urges stewardship that includes protecting each other's cultural heritage, Bishop Greg added, urging people to put aside their craving for dominance and control.

For information, email or visit The entire conference can be viewed at

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, April, 2022