Students join community leaders on Columbia River

“This was one of the most memorable experiences in my local government career … fascinating, educating, and inspiring.”Aidan McLaren-Caux, Councillor for the Village of Nakusp

In early September, community leaders and young people came together in Burton on the banks of the West Kootenay’s Arrow Lakes Reservoir for a long weekend of intergenerational knowledge sharing and learning about the Columbia River and its management.

The adult participants represented local governments from across the Columbia Basin, as well as members of the Columbia Basin Regional Advisory Committee and Columbia River Treaty Local Governments Committee. Four teenage students from Wildsight’s 15-day Columbia River Field School joined them to share their knowledge and perspectives, alongside Wildsight facilitators.

For three days, participants engaged in vibrant conversations and healthy debates all while camped next to the very waters they were discussing. And, of course, there was the opportunity to practise some canoe skills while paddling around the reservoir. Spending time on the water allowed participants to see first hand the dramatically low water levels, which have made front page news in local papers over recent weeks

Discussions and debate about the Columbia River.

It was an incredible opportunity not just for the community leaders to learn about the river, but also for the students to experience a bit of a role reversal as they helped educate the adult leaders.

Columbia River Field School students come away from their time on the Columbia with a wealth of knowledge about river ecology, the history of the watershed, and forces that are shaping its future such as  the Columbia River Treaty, the transboundary agreement between Canada and the United States which is currently being renegotiated. Given the increasing urgency of the treaty negotiations, it was a major topic of conversation for the weekend. 

“I learned much value on the land and the pivotal moment this region is experiencing right now with the modernization of the Columbia River Treaty, Indigenous-led salmon reintroduction and other related efforts,” says Tom Zeleznik, Mayor of the Village of Nakusp. 

Participants even engaged in a mock treaty negotiation – something our field school students undertake each year (often producing thoughtful, intelligent responses). For field school alumna Ellie Kermode, the experience allowed her to gain a better understanding of how older generations view the watershed and the treaty.

Columbia River Conversations 2023

“This was important because they are [some of] the ones responsible for the current decisions and outcomes of the river and its residents. This also gave me a lot more information on this topic and gave me numerous extra chances to reflect and learn!” she says.

Adults also found rich and meaningful engagement.

“To get to spend more time with the youth from the Field School who are such an inspiration; to learn more and different perspectives about the river and the treaty; the paddling; all of it,” shares Nakusp Councillor Aidan McLaren-Caux.

Radium Councillor Carey Collin agreed, adding that the knowledge gained on the trip gave him the confidence to share his learnings with others and, overall, he loved the whole experience: “Getting your feet dirty while surrounded by good people, eating good food, and learning … awesome!”

This was our first trip of this nature, but we suspect it won’t be the last. The feedback received has been exactly what we were hoping for; participants left with not only a deeper understanding of the issues at stake, but also a renewed sense of purpose in engaging in the Columbia River watershed management and the choices we are making for future generations.

“The takeaway hopefully from this is as (we) the older generation remembers the past of the devastation to our lands and are slowly dwindling, we now need to continue to share our knowledge, and are now beginning to see a new generation that really cares about our ecological/environment impacts of the lands, aquatic, and wildlife that affect our Columbia watershed,” reflects Tom.