Where salmon once swam

A River Captured: The Columbia River Treaty and Catastrophic Change
by Eileen Delehanty Pearkes

Victoria: Rocky Mountain Books, 2024
$25  /  9781771605236

Reviewed by Ron Verzuh

*

Four miles up from Castlegar, the Columbia will be dammed
And the water that they store in there controlled by Uncle Sam.
This sets my mind to wondering just what the fate will be
Of the big Columbia River from the Rockies of BC.

–Joe Irving, Jr. and Skip Fraser
Sung to the tune of Wabash Cannonball

The ocean salmon that once swam up the Columbia River to spawn and provide sustenance to the indigenous peoples of the Kootenay district were long gone when I grew up near the shores of the mighty Columbia. Now, a reissue of this 2016 book has reminded me of the river’s past glory, the political forces that tamed it, and my own memories of it.

American-born author Eileen Delehanty Pearkes came to the northern banks of the Columbia in 1985 to do further research into its history. She was partly interested in learning more about the river as a food source for First Nations like the Sinixt or Lakes People that were falsely declared extinct in 1956.

We follow her research much like we might tag along with a traveller exploring new territory. She is a modern-day David Thompson, the explorer who first mapped his way along the river’s 2,000 kilometres to the Pacific Ocean in 1806. Except that she has other goals in mind than finding new trade routes for a rapacious corporation like the North West Company.

Dedicating her book to the river, she writes that she wants “to see for myself how and why the fish no longer spawn in the upper Columbia region.” She also wants to see how the First Nations people who lived next to the river were devastated by its capture.

“American-born author Eileen Delehanty Pearkes came to the northern banks of the Columbia in 1985 to do further research into its history,” writes Ron Verzuh.

Her task is to map the destruction of the river as ordained by the Columbia River Treaty (CRT). By describing her voyage up the Columbia we see the present but also the past of this great stretch of water, we learn about the geography, the fauna and flora, and, importantly, we learn of the plans to dam the river under rules set by the International Joint Commission, a Canada-United States body charged with governing waterways in the Pacific Northwest.

Pearkes meticulously walks us through the many dams that block the river – the Mica, Duncan, and High Arrow – but the one that affected me directly is the one built at Castlegar, BC, in the early 1960s. The High Arrow, officially the Hugh Keenleyside Dam, flooded out several communities upriver from Castlegar. I had school friends who were displaced because of it. Orchard-growing villages like Renata disappeared under water and my friends had to find homes elsewhere.

The flooding gave rise to a local protest movement as farmers and orchardists were forced out with less compensation that they wanted. The protests included The Dam Song, a Kootenay rendering of American folksinger Woodie Guthrie’s more famous song about the Grand Coulee Dam. Pearkes doesn’t mention the former but gives us a few paragraphs on Guthrie’s songs about the river.

The book details the dam projects, the politics behind them and the damage done. The new edition updates readers on the continuing pollution caused by BC mining corporation Teck Resources and other industries. The toxins dumped into the river effect fish and contaminants damage the ecosystem.

“Pearkes also includes the possibility that the salmon might run again using First Nations ingenuity and new methods to help them get back to their spawning grounds.”

However, Pearkes also includes the possibility that the salmon might run again using First Nations ingenuity and new methods to help them get back to their spawning grounds. First Nations have had success in their efforts to “reintroduce salmon to hundreds of spawning habitat.” The dream of the salmon’s return was becoming a reality,” she writes. “Central to the restoration of the ecosystem is allowing the river to flow in support of the ocean salmon.”

A River Captured is written with deep concern for the people, wildlife and natural habitat of the river. It is an intimate examination of the mistakes that have been made in the interests of generating more hydroelectric power and stockpiling water. But the human cost has been vastly undervalued, she argues.

Pearkes brings a literary eye to her project, infusing it with river history, indigenous folklore and an appreciation of cultural differences. She also describes “being touched by the salmon spirit” as she contemplates “my own settler culture’s ethics and conduct.” When “I calculate the waste, greed and myopic consumption of only six decades . . . I feel humbled, saddened and ashamed,” she writes.

With her account of what governments on both sides of the international boundary have done to the Columbia, we might all share her sadness. Pearkes has issued an environmental warning akin to American conservationist Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in the early 1960s.

***

Lyrics to The Dam Song

There’s seven wonders in this world, their names are known quite well
From Babylon Gardens to the Sphinx, the ancient stories tell.
But now the greatest wonder is the folly in our land
They sold us down the river with the new High Arrow Dam.

Four miles up from Castlegar, the Columbia will be dammed
And the water that they store in there controlled by Uncle Sam.
This sets my mind to wondering just what the fate will be
Of the big Columbia River from the Rockies of BC.

We could divert the Kootenay into Columbia Lake
By way of Thompson River and on down through Hell’s Gate
We could build a mighty complex of factories and dams
And manufacture Canada’s ore instead of Uncle Sam’s.

It’s not that we’re ungrateful, we’ve never been before,
Been trying to stand up by ourselves since 1864
But now upon this issue, we all must take a stand
Canada for Canadians! it’s our God-given land!

Is this land your land or is it their land?
This land was made for you and me.

*

Ron Verzuh

Ron Verzuh is a writer and historian. He’s recently reviewed books by Vince R. Ditrich, Aaron Williams, Michel Drouin, Hetxw’ms Gyetxw (Brett D. Huson), Haley Healey, and Keith G. Powell for BCR; he also contributed an essay about trade unionist Harvey Murphy.

*

The British Columbia Review


Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie


Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an online book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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