Indigenous leaders connecting on transboundary issues

Transboundary mining issues that threaten wild salmon habitat in Southeast Alaska, a matter of concern to indigenous peoples and commercial fishermen on both sides of the border, are attracting more attention from the International Joint Commission.

The IJC is guided by the Boundary Waters Treaty signed into law in 1909 by United States and Canada. That treaty provides general principles for preventing and resolving disputes over waters shared by the two countries and for settling other transboundary issues. The two major responsibilities of the IJC are to approve projects that affect water levels and flows across the boundary and investigating transboundary issues and recommending solutions, taking into account needs for many waterway uses, from drinking water and commercial shipping to fishing, recreational boating and shoreline property.

To that end members of the IJC were to meet virtually on Zoom on Thursday, May 14, with indigenous leaders from Alaska, British Columbia, Montana and Idaho, the University of Montana, British Columbia’s First Nationals Energy and Mining Council, the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission and Salmon Beyond Borders.

Tribes and First Nations, scientists, businesses, residents and stakeholders on both sides of these rivers have called on the federal governments of both nations to enforce the Boundary Waters Treaty due to the continuing threat of pollution from British Columbia mines planned and in operation. They have asked the U.S. State Department and Global Affairs Canada to honor their mutual obligations to protect these shared transboundary watersheds and establish a binational process involving the tribes and First Nations, according to Salmon Beyond Borders, which issued an announcement about the online meeting this past week.

The session was intended to be a starting point for dialogue not only between the IJC commissioners and Alaska tribes, but between indigenous leaders from Alaska, Idaho, Montana and British Columbia to share mutual concerns about water quality, said Jill Weitz, director of Salmon Beyond Borders.

Involvement from the IJC must be prompted by political will, and both Global Affairs Canada and the State Department have yet to meaningfully engage on this issue, continuing to defer to the nonbinding memoranda of understanding that British Columbia has secured with downstream US states, Weitz said.

“It is alarming still, with how vulnerable our Southeast Alaska fishing communities are right now, that this nonbinding and unfunded MOU Alaska has with B.C. is enough for Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the state department,” she said. “In order to move our federal government on this, the state of Alaska must support federal engagement, and until they do, BC is moving forward with multiple projects that rival the size of the proposed Pebble Mine in Southwest Alaska.”

Weitz said she is hopeful that with continued leadership from the Alaska congressional delegation, Alaska tribes and thousands of Alaskans who continue to push for state department involvement that the Dunleavy administration may recognize the need for involvement to stop the potential pollution of salmon habitat in these transboundary waters.