1999 – 2005
“If there was ever an organization that is about potential and striving for that potential, it is the Columbia Basin Trust.”
DON JOHNSTON, PRESIDENT AND CEO, 1999–2005
By 1999, Columbia Basin Trust’s mandate and infrastructure were formally in place, and a clear path forward was mapped in the Columbia Basin Management Plan. The first full year of delivery of benefits was completed in 1998. Construction had begun on Arrow Lakes Generating Station, the first hydropower project undertaken by the Trust and its partner, Columbia Power Corporation. The Trust was eager to build on this momentum and act on what it was created to do: improve the lives of Basin residents and empower them to make decisions about their own future. Over the next few years, the Trust would expand its influence in the Basin through new projects and initiatives, including non-power investments, social programming and environmental strategies.
The Trust would also face significant challenges in balancing its roles as an investor, funder and community partner. A mix of both triumphs and lessons learned, this period of growth and trial would be characterized by incoming CEO Don Johnston’s determination “to be willing to take risks and to learn from our mistakes.”1 Johnston was brought on as CEO in February 1999 to help the Trust navigate the unfamiliar territory of grants and programming. Originally from Nelson, Johnston had served as program director for the Vancouver Foundation, a non-profit, community-oriented funding organization.
The long-term strategies outlined in the Trust’s management plan were, in Johnston’s words, “daunting.” But, he said, “if there was ever an organization that is about potential and striving for that potential, it is the Columbia Basin Trust.”2 He initiated several changes to the Trust’s structure and operations that would help the Trust achieve its goals, while keeping the people of the Basin at the heart of all decisions. The first step was to relocate the Trust’s head office. Nakusp, the Trust’s original headquarters, was far from an airport and its hydropower projects with Columbia Power. The Trust selected Castlegar, which had a small airport and was close to both Arrow Lakes Generating Station and Brilliant Dam. At approximately 7,000 people, Castlegar also had one of the largest populations in the Basin.3 While Nakusp would still have an office, the Trust’s main operations would be moved.
The decision did not pass without criticism. While many agreed Castlegar was a more strategic location, others saw it as a repeat of past decisions — the Columbia River Treaty itself came to mind — that overlooked small communities in favour of larger city centres.4 In response, Johnston explained the move made sense for both staff and Basin residents. “Unfortunately, even though we live in a high-tech age, physical presence at meetings is often necessary,” said Johnston, “particularly when building relationships around the Basin.”5
Though Corky Evans, an original champion of the Nakusp location, was still convinced that Trust staff should be able to look out the window and see the physical impacts of the Treaty, but he admitted the move was a practical one. The Board was right, and Evans conceded, saying, “I mean, we’re trying to build a power [station] in Castlegar, with an office in Nakusp and Columbia Power’s engineering staff in Victoria.”6
The decision to relocate the head office to Castlegar added to the Trust’s investment portfolio. It invested $4 million in building a 30,000-square-foot office with the intention to move onto the third floor and rent out the rest of the building. Construction was completed in April 2001. A month later, on May 11, 100 people gathered for the official opening. Trust Chair Josh Smienk was joined by Castlegar Mayor Mike O’Connor and Columbia Power President Lorne Sivertson for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.7
To expand its presence in the Basin, the Trust opened additional offices in Cranbrook and Golden, and hired community liaisons who lived and worked in each of the Trust’s four locations, offering residents easy, in-person access to the Trust.
Not only did this improve communication between residents and the organization, but it also allowed the Trust to better identify and address local concerns.8 In addition to working with communities in their assigned regions, each liaison specialized in specific areas of programming: water management, economic development, the social sector, education and training or arts, culture and heritage.
By 2001, the Trust had regional offices in four locations: Castlegar, Nakusp, Golden and Cranbrook. Having offices across the Basin enabled the Trust to better communicate and work alongside residents.
The Trust’s delivery of benefits work expanded as well. Two of the first programs it introduced were the Community Initiatives and Affected Areas Programs — both of which still exist today. Working with local government partners, these programs distribute funds annually to projects identified and selected by individual communities. The Affected Areas Program gives additional funding to the areas most impacted by the Columbia River Treaty dams. Individual communities decide which projects get funding and each community has its own selection process. In Nakusp, for example, people seeking project funding present their ideas in a community setting. After viewing displays and speaking to project representatives, residents select their top three or four choices. The votes are then tallied, and the projects with the most votes are approved. Karen Hamling, who served as mayor of Nakusp from 2005 to 2018, highlighted the popularity of the process: “We get more people normally voting for that than for the elections.”9
The Community Initiatives and Affected Areas Programs have funded thousands of projects, from bear-proofing in Revelstoke to keeping bus service running in Elk Valley to new vehicles and equipment for search-and-rescue operations across the region. Community halls have been renovated, playgrounds built and libraries filled.10 Millions of dollars have been injected directly into Basin communities, which control how the money is spent and prioritize the unique needs of their residents.
The Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy and the Trust began working together to improve literacy in the Basin in 2000.
Literacy support was one of the Trust’s earliest priorities. The Trust announced the Resources for Family Literacy Program in 2000, inspired by funding requests from Basin residents. The program was devised to support existing family-literacy programs while addressing barriers preventing families from participating in these programs, such as poverty, lack of transportation and access to child care.11 To achieve these goals, the Trust partnered with the Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy (CBAL), which brought together literacy organizations and programs from across the region under one umbrella to provide communities with equal access to services. One of CBAL’s early managers, Leona Gadsby, remembers seeing clear partnership potential in the Trust. CBAL shared the Trust’s goal of ensuring the social and economic well-being of Basin residents. Literacy skills, Gadsby said, enable people to finish school, go to college and find employment. “People with good literacy skills are able to take part in the whole of society, socially and economically,” she explained.12 The Trust and CBAL understood the positive influence literacy programming could have on the region. In 2000, the Trust initially contributed $180,000; by 2017, this had increased to half a million dollars annually.13
Youth Links was a summer program for youth aged 17 to 19. For six weeks, participants travelled the Basin to learn more about the social, economic and environmental issues facing the region. They contributed to community projects and developed their own. “I was really impressed by the commitment from the youth to work on the projects and really get as much out of the experience as they could,” said program coordinator Kelly Comishin. “These young adults have a lot to offer our communities.”
Since 2001, CBAL has been helping to create strong and resilient communities by advancing the literacy skills of learners of all ages. Its diverse programs promote lifelong learning through meaningful, community-focused programming. One of these programs, Books for Babies, began in 2001 and encouraged new parents to develop literacy in their children from infancy.14 CBAL also offers adult tutoring, language services for immigrants and early language development initiatives. Since its inception, CBAL has worked with over 54,000 adults and seniors, 48,962 children and youth, and distributed over 94,000 books and other materials.15
They viewed the Basin’s economy and industry at the Trail headquarters of mining company Teck Cominco and during tours at Hugh Keenleyside Dam and the Arrow Lakes Generating Station construction site. Not as familiar with the impact of the Columbia River Treaty as their parents and grandparents, they also visited farms affected by the Treaty dams.17 “Not only did I learn more about specific issues, but also about the Basin as a whole and how different areas relate,” one participant said. “We were given awesome opportunities to learn in ways that wouldn’t normally be accessible to us.”18
Youth programming was an early priority for the Trust. Photographs from 1999 show a group of 12 youth hiking Rogers Pass through the Selkirk Mountains, pulling knapweed from a field and building a tipi alongside members of the Sinixt Nation. For six weeks, they travelled the Basin as part of the Trust’s Youth Links summer program. They visited communities across the region, exploring social, economic and environmental landscapes while building friendships and gaining valuable work experience.16 In this and subsequent summers, Basin youth toured museums and heritage sites, studied plant and animal species, and learned about issues facing First Nations in the area.
The Youth Links program was designed for youth to leave a lasting legacy in the places they visited and use what they learned to extend that legacy to their own communities. Participants volunteered at community events like Nelson’s Streetfest and the BC Seniors Games. They painted the community hall in Silverton; built trails near Fernie, Invermere and Revelstoke; and did stream restoration work at Kokanee Creek and Wolf Creek near Wasa.19 At the end of the summer, participants received grants to complete follow-up projects in their home communities using the skills and knowledge gained during their time with Youth Links. In 2004, program participant Brittney Hood organized a sexual health workshop for teenage girls in Elkford, while Mikhel Proulx of Trail designed a website that gave a panoramic view of the city and its surrounding hiking paths.20
“If there was ever an organization that is about potential and striving for that potential, it is the Columbia Basin Trust.”
DON JOHNSTON, PRESIDENT AND CEO, 1999–2005.
First published in 2002, Scratch Magazine was created by and for Basin youth. Over 26 issues, Scratch celebrated youth culture and gave young people a platform to share their thoughts and ideas. The title, suggested by Mark Timko of Nelson, encouraged youth to “scratch” down their ideas and share them with others.
Youth Links was just one of many initiatives the Trust introduced in the early 2000s to engage young people. From its symposiums, the Trust knew youth were eager to participate and make their voices and concerns heard. Youth faced their own set of challenges: the lack of educational and employment opportunities; poor transportation between communities; bullying and violence; racism, homophobia and discrimination; and lack of support and resources.21 To provide space for youth to discuss these issues and form solutions, the Trust sponsored the first Basin Voice Youth Action Forum in April 2001. Held at Blue Lake Camp near Canal Flats, the forum drew 90 young people from across the Basin. At the conclusion of the forum, a clear message emerged: youth wanted opportunities to connect, network and share information.
To continue those conversations, the Trust established a youth committee to provide young people with a place in the organization in 2001. The committee, composed of members aged 15 to 25, offered input on the Trust’s programming and funding and created new opportunities for young people in the Basin. The committee promoted and encouraged involvement through training and workshops for youth groups and organizations, employment and leadership opportunities, a grant program to fund youth projects and inter-community events and activities.22
Scratch Magazine also emerged from the Youth Action Forum. Youth wanted a way to network, exchange ideas and access information relevant to them.23 Scratch encouraged youth to “scratch” their ideas down in the form of articles, poems and drawings. It was entirely written and produced by Basin youth. The theme of the first issue, published in spring 2002, was self-esteem and self-image and explored topics like body issues, commercialism, sex, skateboarding, feminism, abuse, employment and Basin life.24 Later issues covered a broad range of topics, including environmental conservation, educational opportunities and photography.
Another concern that Delivery of Benefits programming sought to address was the environment. In the early 2000s, 30 years after the Columbia River Treaty brought great environmental change to the Basin, the region’s concern over environmental issues sharpened. This reflected the larger, global environmental consciousness that gained momentum in the 1990s with the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change and the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. In the Basin, water management was of primary concern. Kindy Gosal, one of the Trust’s first community liaisons, recalled a spike in conversations among Basin residents at the dawn of the 21st century about fluctuating water levels, the social and cultural importance of water and its role in the Basin economy. “All of those discussions were happening at a community level,” said Gosal.25
The Trust surveyed residents, commissioned a report on water management, brought in consultants to review the Columbia River Treaty and water-management agreements, and worked with American organizations to better understand transboundary questions relating to the Columbia River’s ecosystems.26 Armed with this knowledge, the Trust formed a water-management committee and created the Water Initiatives Program in 2001 to educate Basin residents about and involve them in water-management issues. The Trust developed an education strategy and published guides and other resources on water management.27 In 2004, it launched a new website on water issues, dedicated to building an understanding, said Gosal, of “where the water comes from, how it is managed, where it goes and more complex things, like global water shortages and the renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty, which could impact all Basin residents and could occur as early as 2024.”28 Water Initiatives encouraged residents to become actively involved in the effort to safeguard Basin waters for future generations.
INVESTING IN COMMUNITIES
The Trust uses revenues from both hydropower and non-power investments to deliver benefits. Investing in non-power opportunities boosts regional industry and business, while also generating income for the Trust. One of its early investments was affordable housing for seniors. In 2001, the Trust partnered with Golden Life Management, founded three years earlier by Cranbrook resident Endre Lillejord. Golden Life builds and operates affordable housing for seniors, allowing them to remain in their home communities while still receiving the support they need for quality of life. The Trust’s initial investment of $1.3 million helped Golden Life build its second care facility, Castle Wood Village, in Castlegar.29 Golden Life was part of the Trust’s real estate investment portfolio, which became a profitable source of revenue that the Trust continues to use to deliver benefits to the Basin.
Not all investments were financially successful. During the early 2000s, the Trust suffered substantial losses on two investments, St. Eugene Golf Resort and Casino and HeatWave Drying Systems Limited.
Created in 2001, the Water Initiatives Program involved residents in water activities such as taking samples from creek beds and assessing sprinkler systems.
In the 1990s, Cranbrook resident Endre Lillejord was struggling to find a home for his mother, Ivy. He was disappointed to discover that housing options were scarce for seniors who, like Ivy, needed some assistance but were still largely independent. Lillejord quickly realized his family was not alone: seniors and families across the Basin were looking for alternatives to institutional care. Lillejord decided to take matters into his own hands.
Lillejord founded his own company, Golden Life Management, to design, build and operate seniors’ housing. Golden Life envisioned a supportive, affordable housing model that emulated “the old adage that it takes a village to care.”31 The facilities were aptly named “villages,” and the first, Joseph Creek Village, opened in Cranbrook in 1998 with Ivy Lillejord as one of the first residents.
“When you walk through the halls of the village, you’re surrounded by friends and families, and everyone has a goal of ensuring that you have the supports and services in place to live your best quality of life,” said Celeste Mullin, Lillejord’s daughter and Golden Life Vice President of Corporate Business. To maintain and improve these supports, Golden Life saw a real benefit in “finding a strategic partner that we could align with that brought credibility to our seniors’ development, enhanced our brand, was financially strong, and who was really well-integrated within the communities.”
That strategic partner was the Trust. Endre Lillejord reached out to the Trust to discuss a possible collaboration, recognizing that the two organizations shared the value of promoting quality of life for the people of the Basin. The Trust agreed and, in September 2001, committed $1.3 million for Golden Life’s second housing project, Castle Wood Village. The first of its kind in the West Kootenay, the Castlegar facility
featured 77 suites, as well as a games room, exercise room, library, beauty salon and barbershop and craft and hobby areas.32 Celeste Mullin credits the partnership’s success to respect, open communication and a willingness to learn and evolve. In 2006, for example, Golden Life approached the Trust about providing additional assistance for low-income seniors. Together they established an innovative grant program for seniors who might otherwise be unable to pay the market rent at Golden Life’s villages; instead, individuals pay 70 per cent of their incomes in exchange for rent, housekeeping and meals. Mullin sees this program as “a great example of how we’ve met our collective goal of ensuring that people in the Basin have great quality of life, and ensuring that all Basin residents, regardless of their financial resources, have the access to appropriate and affordable housing and services.”33 Golden Life and the Trust continue to collaborate. Eight of Golden Life’s 17 villages have been completed with the Trust’s support, in the Basin communities of Cranbrook, Castlegar, Creston, Fernie, Fruitvale, Invermere, Kimberley and Nelson.
St. Eugene was a former residential school that the Ktunaxa Nation transformed into a golf resort and casino. The Ktunaxa envisioned St. Eugene as a community-centred business that would employ locals and generate profit for the community. More importantly, it was a way for the Ktunaxa, especially residential school survivors, to reclaim their history and identity by transforming a place of hurt into a community asset. The Trust initially joined the St. Eugene project in the late 1990s. From 1998 to 2000, the Trust invested over $6.7 million in the project — close to $2 million over its initial commitment. It provided capital for construction costs and committed to a 10-year loan to subsidize operating costs at a rate of 10 per cent per year.30
The hotel and golf course opened in 2000, with plans to expand St. Eugene by building a casino and an addition to the hotel. On the surface, the project was a financial success; however, the project had fallen deep into debt. This was not helped by the fact that its first seasons were hampered by a regional downturn in tourism due to wildfires, inflated fuel prices and fears over global terrorism and the SARS and West Nile outbreaks.34 St. Eugene filed for bankruptcy protection in December 2003 in an attempt to restructure its finances and operations. In the meantime, because St. Eugene was unable to make payments on the Trust’s loan, the Trust classified the loan as a “non-performing” investment, thought by some to be a disappointment. By 2004, the Trust had only recovered a small portion of its original investment and had to absorb the losses.36 Although St. Eugene was a financial loss for the Trust, some saw it as a valuable learning experience. The process echoed CEO Don Johnston’s insistence several years earlier that the Trust must be willing to take risks, even if that led to what some might perceive as mistakes.
Its investment in HeatWave Drying Systems Limited was another learning experience. HeatWave used radio-wave, dry-kiln technology to improve efficiency and reduce the costs of drying large dimensional products such as lumber. The region’s forestry industry made the Basin an attractive place for this kind of technology and, in spring 2001, the Trust lent HeatWave $3.5 million to fund operations.37 HeatWave could not get past the testing phase, however, and failed to produce technology that could be sold in time to make good on its loans before other investors backed out. With a lack of income, financial support and resources, HeatWave dissolved. The Trust wrote off its remaining capital.38
Underperformance on investments like HeatWave and St. Eugene resulted in a poor return on the Trust’s investments in 2004–05.39 These losses contributed to a deeper internal pressure during this period, as the Trust struggled to address multiple growing pains: navigating additional revenue losses and tensions with its closest partners, while still delivering programs and funding to Basin residents.
The Trust experienced difficulties relating to its hydropower investments as well. All was going according to plan as Arrow Lakes Generating Station was completed on budget and ahead of schedule in 2002, with construction on Brilliant Expansion beginning the following year. However, the Trust and Columbia Power’s attention was diverted back to Arrow Lakes Generating Station in 2004 when cracks were discovered in an intake channel, forcing two long and expensive shutdown periods over the next two years. Although repair costs and the loss of revenue during the shutdowns meant low investment returns for the Trust, significant funds were recovered through insurance. Once all repairs were completed in May 2006, the project became profitable again.40
Basin residents started to question the Trust’s priorities when, in spring 2001, the Trust and Columbia Power announced their intention to acquire four generating stations owned by West Kootenay Power.41 The purchase of the stations, located between Nelson and Castlegar and not connected to the partners’ existing hydropower assets, was subject to approval by the BC Utilities Commission. In October 2001, the commission denied the application, citing the possibility that ratepayers would lose money.42 Some Basin residents were relieved the deal fell through: they did not want the Trust so heavily concentrated on hydropower projects, and they worried the acquisition of new power projects was outside the Trust’s mandate. Trail City Councillor Norm Gabana was a harsh critic of what he perceived as the Trust’s over-involvement in hydropower projects, going so far as to urge the Province to “dump the whole organization and put it in with BC Hydro.”43
Gabana’s comments were not entirely out of the blue. While the Trust was investigating new power projects, a provincial review process threatened to upend the organization completely. In May 2001, the provincial NDP government that helped create the Trust was replaced by a Liberal majority. The new government took swift action against the hefty provincial debt, which had doubled over the past decade and was projected to reach $34.7 billion by 2002.44 Under Premier Gordon Campbell, the Liberals introduced a deregulation and core services review process to examine all provincial programs and activities, determine the government’s core roles and responsibilities and identify ways to make government services more efficient and cost-effective for taxpayers.45
As a provincial organization, the Trust was subject to this process, as was Columbia Power. “Everybody was getting looked at,” Trust director Greg Deck said. He and other Board members were concerned the Province might see the Trust and Columbia Power as redundant, since BC Hydro also operated projects in the region.46
Trust Board members feared the Province would eliminate perceived redundancies by combining the Trust, Columbia Power and BC Hydro into a government-controlled power conglomerate.47 The Trust worried the Province saw it only as a Crown corporation involved in power projects, rather than a multifaceted organization with a mandate to serve the people of the Basin.48 If an amalgamation were to occur, the Trust would likely lose its funding and, with it, much of its ability to deliver benefits.
The Trust was not axed or absorbed, as many residents feared it would be; however, the core services review did lead to changes. The review recommended amendments to the Trust’s defining legislation, the Columbia Basin Trust Act, notably in the structure of the Board of Directors. An amendment to the Act was passed in 2003, which reduced the Board from 18 directors to 12 and mandated that all directors be appointed by the provincial government.49
This change was not well-received. Although six Board members would still be nominated locally, Basin residents worried provincial control over the appointment of directors signalled a loss in regional influence over the Trust.50 This was amplified by earlier fears that the Trust was growing too preoccupied with its power investments. Larry Brierley was involved in the Trust’s formation while serving as a director for the Regional District of Central Kootenay years earlier. He recognized the re-emergence of the “classic rural-urban conflict” — the fear the region was being run by Victoria — that made the Trust necessary in the first place.
“Regardless of what the Liberals’ intentions are,” Brierley warned, “we will lose control of this thing that is ours.”51 Residents accused the Trust of being complicit in these changes. One Nakusp resident complained that promised consultation with Basin residents about the proposed changes had not occurred. He accused the Trust and the Province of making “backroom deals without public input.”52 In Nelson, a town hall meeting drew 150 unhappy citizens who accused the Trust of lacking transparency. “The Trust has been a huge success, and it feels like it’s being hijacked,” said one protester.53
Even after the core services review concluded in 2002, the Trust’s anxieties remained. It began to investigate options to preserve its independence and avoid being absorbed by the provincial government in the future.
The option that came to the forefront was to sell its shares of power projects and abandon its hydropower investments entirely. The stress placed upon the Trust by the core services review and the tremendous effort required to run hydropower projects caused the Trust to grow increasingly wary of its involvement in hydropower operations. Greg Deck remembered the Board’s frustration as members began to ask, “Why don’t we just sell our hydroelectric assets and put our money into the market somewhere and quit bashing our heads?”61
Located in the community of aqam, just outside Cranbrook, St. Eugene Golf Resort and Casino is owned and operated by the Ktunaxa Nation. The resort lies at the end of Mission Road and is set against a backdrop of tall mountains and the blue waters of St. Mary River. Surrounded by manicured lawns and colourful gardens, the scene stands in stark contrast to the one First Nations children witnessed when St. Eugene was used as a residential school operated by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate from 1912 to 1970.
The final bend along Mission Road was known to these children as Crying Corner, revealing not a holiday destination but an imposing, 55-foot-tall concrete structure where, far from their homes and families, over 5,000 children from the Ktunaxa, Okanagan, Shuswap and Blackfoot nations had their culture and childhood deliberately and violently stolen from them.54 One of these children was Sophie Pierre, who spent nine years at St. Eugene, beginning at age six. Pierre grew up to become a Nasuʔkin (Chief) of the Ktunaxa Nation and a major advocate of the St. Eugene project. The idea to transform St. Eugene into a resort arose gradually and with reluctance, Pierre recalled. After the school closed in 1970, an agreement between the Oblates and the federal government turned the building and the 327 acres of surrounding land over to the ʔaq’am community, whose children had been forced to attend the school. The building sat vacant for over 20 years, falling into disrepair while the Ktunaxa struggled to reconcile conflicting opinions about what to do with the site.
Some wanted to tear it down and destroy this physical symbol of trauma and abuse, while others, like Pierre, saw the potential to turn St. Eugene into something that would benefit the community and help its people heal from the painful legacy of residential schools.55 “Since it was within the St. Eugene Mission School that the culture of the Kootenay Indian was taken away, it should be within that building that it is returned,” Ktunaxa Elder Mary Paul stated.56 Her words became the cornerstone of the St. Eugene project and are now displayed on the walls of the resort. But Sophie Pierre remembered it took some time before the community understood exactly what their Elder meant: that transforming St. Eugene could help restore the cultural, social and economic order that had crumbled under the residential school system. The halls where children had had their hair cut and gone to bed hungry, where they had been punished for speaking their own language, and where they had suffered constant physical, sexual and emotional abuse — these were the places where the Ktunaxa would regain their culture and find healing.
Empowered by Elder Mary Paul’s words, the Ktunaxa Nation began the slow process of creating St. Eugene Golf Resort and Casino. The golf course opened on schedule in 2000. The first year was a success, with Golf Digest rating it one of the top three Best New Canadian Courses in 2001. Behind the scenes, however, the project was falling into debt. The post-September 11, 2001, travel climate, inflated fuel prices, regional wildfires and outbreaks of SARS and the West Nile Virus all contributed to a downturn in visitors to the region.57 Decreased tourism meant lower earnings for St. Eugene, and the project struggled to build the planned addition to the hotel and casino. St. Eugene filed for bankruptcy protection in December 2003 in an attempt to restructure its finances and operations. But the Ktunaxa Nation persevered. In 2004, the St. Eugene project was saved from financial collapse through a partnership between the Ktunaxa, the Samson Cree Nation in Alberta and the Rama First Nation in Ontario.
It was the first time First Nations from across the country had partnered on such an initiative. It took several years, but the resort began to turn a profit. Helder Ponte of the Ktunaxa Nation Council agreed that, while there were significant obstacles, “as we went on, the will to finish the resort grew even stronger.”58 St. Eugene is a point of pride for its creators. Sophie Pierre declared that, somehow, “without two nickels to rub together,” the Ktunaxa and their partners “managed to put together a $40-million resort.” An RV park was added in 2017 and, in 2018, St. Eugene was the host hotel for the BC Seniors Games. The resort hosts writers’ conferences and partners with nearby wineries for wine tastings and festivals. St. Eugene employs between 200 to 300 people year-round. Pierre believes St. Eugene helped foster relationships between the Ktunaxa Nation and non-Indigenous organizations in the Basin and cemented the fact that “the Indigenous community is going to be involved now.”59
In October 2004, the Trust and BC Hydro announced discussions about a proposal to sell the Trust’s $260 million of hydropower assets to BC Hydro. The Trust could use the money from the sale to continue its delivery of benefits and to invest in other opportunities. The Trust never intended to become a power corporation in the first place, Josh Smienk reminded the public. In a news release, he argued that, while these were valuable investments, an end to power operations would free up the Trust’s resources to focus on the delivery of benefits.62
Basin residents opposed the sale. The headlines that splashed across newspapers included “Selling Off Our Legacy,” “Power Sale Divides Kootenays,” and, echoing the Columbia River Treaty deal decades earlier, “Sold Down the River – Part 2?”63 Letters poured in to newspapers and directly to the Trust. Although they supported the Trust’s vision to gain greater independence from the provincial government, residents did not agree that selling hydropower assets was the right solution.64 Early Trust Board members Ed Conroy and Corky Evans were vehemently against the sale. “They’re buying us off with our own money, and they’re selling our heritage to do it,” Conroy said. Evans agreed: “I’m not saying it’s wrong for people to sell their heritage, I just think they should have a say.” The Trust seemed to be rushing into the deal without consulting Basin residents. “It took five years to do this deal,” Evans said of the Trust’s original purchase of hydropower assets. “If you spent five years deciding to get married, why would you get divorced in a month?”65
The Trust insisted it was doing its due diligence. It held eight public meetings across the region, at which upset residents expressed their disapproval. In Nelson, it was reported that, in a crowd of over 200 people, not one person supported the proposed sale.66 In Trail, the reaction was described as “overwhelmingly negative.”67 For Nelson Daily News columnist Stephen Fowler, the sale of the assets was a betrayal of “those people who fought long and hard to get us those things, as well as our children who will depend on that profit and control if the Columbia Basin is going to remain a desirable place to work and live.” He added, “At least as part owners, we have a say in how that profit [from the hydropower projects] is invested. We’ll lose that control once BC Hydro takes over.”68
Residents’ opposition could not be ignored. In December 2004, the Trust announced it would not proceed with the proposed sale.69 In retrospect, Board member Greg Deck acknowledged, “the group intelligence was much wiser than ours. They weren’t living our frustration.”70 Chair Josh Smienk reflected on the Trust’s change of heart:
Columbia Basin Trust, since its inception, has always been a grassroots organization that’s taken its direction from the public. It’s part of our Columbia Basin Management Plan that before we make decisions on items of our large investments such as this, we consult with the public and the public has come back and overwhelmingly said that they do not want to be out of the power business.71
Although the sale of power assets was off the table, the Trust still sought independence. Part of this desire was an increasingly strained relationship with its partner, Columbia Power. Although Columbia Power was meant to operate and provide expertise on their shared power projects, the Trust started to challenge many of its decisions. The Trust wanted Columbia Power to pay grants in lieu of taxes on Arrow Lakes Generating Station as early as 2004, a request Columbia Power refused on the grounds that BC Hydro already paid grants for Hugh Keenleyside Dam upstream. Nor was the generating station fully operational.72 Columbia Power also temporarily resisted pressure from the Trust to relocate its head office from Victoria to its regional office in Castlegar. As criticism and demands from the Trust piled up, Columbia Power executives were upset they were excluded from Trust meetings, where they might have had the opportunity to explain their decisions.73 In what was meant to be equal ownership and a collaborative partnership, Columbia Power felt it had been treated unfairly.
A solution emerged that the Trust hoped would solve its relationship with Columbia Power and secure the independence it was looking for. This solution, known as the Option Agreement, proposed that the Trust purchase Columbia Power’s shares of their joint hydropower projects, becoming sole owner and giving the Trust full control over its hydropower assets.74
Stories of Impact
In spite of the challenges the Trust faced surrounding its power projects, it completed many successful programs and initiatives. Its annual reports showcased the social, economic, and environmental work the Trust accomplished during this time.
The Trust hoped the agreement would give it independence from outside partners and shield it from any political shifts that might affect those partnerships. However, the Board recognized the significant challenges and costs involved in striking such a deal. There was also pressure from the Province, which wanted to maintain influence over the regional hydropower industry. If Columbia Power was bought out, the Province (which was represented by Columbia Power) would lose that influence. Without Columbia Power operating on its behalf, the Province would also lose money in the long term.
In 2006, the Province offered the Trust $10 million to shelve the Option Agreement.75 The Trust accepted. In addition to the $10 million, the deal acknowledged the Trust’s desire for regional control over hydropower assets, giving the Trust greater influence by granting it one-third of the seats on Columbia Power’s Board of Directors. It was agreed the CEO of Columbia Power should live in the Basin, not Victoria.76 These measures meant the partners would work together more closely. Although Columbia Power was frustrated at the Trust for pursuing the Option Agreement without its input, this was a step forward in improving their relationship while protecting the region’s influence over hydropower projects and decisions.
While the Trust was absorbed with its investigations and negotiations about its hydropower assets and relationships with Columbia Power and the Province, Basin residents grew frustrated at the lack of communication from the Trust. In its scramble to address the many stresses of its first 10 years of operation — underperforming non-power investments like St. Eugene and HeatWave, revenue losses on Arrow Lakes Generating Station and increased external tension with its corporate and government partnerships — had the Trust inadvertently lost its way?
However, in the midst of disappointments, there were many positives on which the Trust could build: residents were pleased with the social and environmental programs introduced from 1999 to 2005 and wanted to see continued spending in Basin communities. But Basin residents wanted the Trust to return to its mandate and not succumb to further distractions. The Trust wanted the same. As its 10th anniversary approached, the Trust, and indeed the entire Basin, was once again ready for change.