2005 – 2009

“We, as a relatively young organization, are still growing. We are also growing together with our various partners and with residents of the Columbia Basin. Understanding this, and striving to continue with this objective in mind, will allow us all to contribute to the growth of our Basin.”

After 10 years, three of the Trust’s four hydropower projects were in operation or under way, revenues were rising and programs were being introduced. But rapid growth tested the Trust. Basin residents had grown frustrated at the Trust’s lack of transparency regarding hydropower projects, especially as it struggled to determine what the future of those projects would look like. They felt the Trust had neglected to involve them in important decisions. There were worries the Trust had grown preoccupied with its investments and strayed from its grassroots origins. Residents and the Trust had become disconnected from one another. The collaborative culture that had characterized the Trust’s early years was weakening. Further growth was inevitable, but the Trust needed to become stronger and more resilient to move forward. It needed, as well, to restore the trust of Basin residents.

What challenged the Trust also made it successful. Hydro projects continued to create jobs, boost the economy and generate wealth, even as the Trust debated ownership questions. Increasing revenues meant that, although it needed to introduce new measures to keep up with its financial growth, the Trust could deliver more benefits to the region. Expanding programs meant new solutions, new partnerships and new possibilities. Once it learned to better manage growth and relationships, the Trust would be poised more than ever to deliver on its vision.

Beginning in 2005, the Trust worked hard to restore the trust of Basin residents, who felt they had been left out of important conversations and decisions in recent years. By the 2010 symposium, pictured here, the Trust had successfully rebuilt its relationships with residents, ensuring their voices remained at the heart of all decisions.


Seven years had passed since the Trust’s last symposium, so the 2005 event was a long-overdue opportunity for the Trust to reconnect with the people of the Basin. Over 240 delegates gathered in Cranbrook, anxious to voice their grievances. “Within the fabric of the CBT that we built together, it feels as though there is a thread unravelling,” said one delegate. Decisions over hydropower assets especially had been anything but transparent. The Trust had not shared sufficient details. “We no longer understand what’s going on,” one symposium-goer complained. “You need to figure out how to talk to us and keep us educated.” Residents wanted a continuous, Basin-wide dialogue. Symposium delegates agreed the Trust should promote that dialogue. One said, “If we spend funds learning to talk to each other, those pennies are worth as much as any other investment.”1 The meeting was a reminder of the deep sense of ownership people felt over the organization.2 Board members and staff left Cranbrook determined to honour that ownership and restore residents’ trust.

Changes were already in motion. In March 2005, the Trust announced a shift in leadership. CEO Don Johnston had navigated the Trust through a challenging period as it faced the core services review and grappled with its future in hydropower. Despite these challenges, the Trust had expanded its presence and programs across the Basin.

“We, as a relatively young organization, are still growing. We are also growing together with our various partners and with residents of the Columbia Basin. Understanding this, and striving to continue with this objective in mind, will allow us all to contribute to the growth of our Basin.”


By the end of Johnston’s tenure, the Trust had evolved so significantly that different skills and experience were needed to ensure this growth continued. The time had come to introduce new expertise to guide the organization. When the 2005 symposium met in July, the Trust had selected, but not yet announced, a new leader. Rumour had it that the new CEO was at the symposium, and residents were eager to learn who it was. Nakusp resident Laurie Page was there and remembers people “looking at everybody’s shoes because they figured the new guy would wear fancy shoes.”3

The incoming CEO was there, but his shoes did not give him away. Laurie Page and other Basin residents had to wait until September 2005 before the Trust announced who had accepted the position. Neil Muth was born and raised in Trail and, after years working in Victoria, was happy to return to the region. “Neil had his heart in the Basin. He always knew he wanted to move back,” Josh Smienk said.4 Muth’s connection to the region made him well-suited to lead the Trust in rebuilding relationships with residents, while at the same time making the organization — now well-established in the region and working with steadily increasing funds and assets — even more professional. Muth had expertise in finance and policymaking and, mindful of the 2005 symposium, was committed to addressing the concerns raised. “It was exciting to see so many members of the public committed to the well-being of the region and the future of CBT,” Muth said of the event. “It was also a great opportunity to learn first-hand some of the issues facing CBT and Basin residents. The challenge now lies in working together with the Board, staff and Basin residents to fulfill the goals voiced at the symposium, and as outlined in CBT’s mandate.”5 As the organization grew over the coming years, Muth and the Trust would strive to rediscover the Trust’s grassroots beginnings.

Following Neil Muth’s appointment as CEO, the Trust made immediate changes to communicate with residents. To better inform the public about its activi-ties, the Trust hired its first communications director. It committed to publishing regular newsletters and continued to release an annual Report to Residents. Symposiums would take place every three years.

Community Day participants look out over the recently completed Brilliant Expansion Generating Station.

Not every solution was clear cut. The Trust made missteps on the path to balancing corporate needs with those of residents. One of these errors was the decision to close the Trust’s original headquarters in Nakusp. The Trust’s headquarters had already moved to Castlegar five years earlier. Closing the Nakusp office was a way to save on rental costs, since it was a small office with few staff members. The Board believed that condensing operations into three offices instead of four made sense. Muth travelled to Nakusp to make the announcement in  August 2006. The decision was met with a wave of public protest. Once again, residents felt their concerns had been ignored while the Trust prioritized its own interests. Complaints streamed in. Among the dissenters was Nakusp Mayor Karen Hamling, who accused the Trust of becoming “a huge multimillion-dollar corporation that’s only interested in making more and more money at the cost of our people.” She added that “their promise of presence in the community is a complete sham!”6

Laurie Page, who later became a Trust Board member, agreed that closing the Nakusp office was a mistake. It “was just too much . . . living the way we did on the reservoir and with all the damage there,” she said. “We felt like the Trust staff needed to be there and live it too.”7 Page was among the countless residents who wrote letters and emails to the Trust opposing the decision. She was surprised when Muth called her soon after, asking to sit down and talk. Board member Greg Deck recalled it was that willingness to listen that earned Muth the respect of Basin residents and helped rebuild their confidence in the organization. The whole Nakusp affair, he said, was a “crash course in how you operate in a group of small communities.”8 Hearing the public opposition to the closure of the Nakusp office, the Trust acknowledged its error. The decision was reversed a few weeks later and the office remained open.9

Further steps toward restoring the Basin’s trust sought to honour residents’ ownership of the Trust and Columbia Power’s shared hydropower assets. The partners looked for ways to make these assets accessible to residents and visitors alike. On September 17, 2006, hundreds of people boarded school buses that carried them across Brilliant Dam to the site of the in-progress Brilliant Expansion project. Most were from Castlegar and the surrounding West Kootenay, invited by the Trust and Columbia Power to celebrate Community Day, which was a chance for people of the Basin to tour the project so many of them were helping to build. This was also their last chance to walk down into the tunnel that connected Brilliant Dam to the new generating station. Once the expansion was completed in 2007, the tunnel would be flooded with water flowing from the dam to the station.

The Brilliant Dam People

Over 400 people were employed to construct the Brilliant Expansion between 2003 and 2007. The workforce included heavy-construction labourers, heavy-equipment operators, carpenters, ironworkers, cement masons, pipefitters, millwrights and boilermakers. More than 85 per cent of workers were locals who lived within 100 kilometres of the dam site.

The Community Day visitors were just a handful of the thousands who stopped by the Brilliant Expansion site after an information centre, staffed by two college students, opened there in 2005. People learned more about the project through displays at the interpretive centre and a look at the project through the windows at the construction site. Over 12,000 people visited the centre from May to September 2005 alone.10 “These projects are, of course, half owned by the people, so the people like to come out and see what’s happening with their assets,” said Wally Penner, Columbia Power’s Community and Regional Affairs Executive Director. 11 The sense of ownership people felt for the project was not just through their stake in the Trust. Eighty-five per cent of workers hired for Brilliant Expansion — about 400 people overall — lived within 100 kilometres of the site.12

In September 2006, long-time Chair Josh Smienk announced he would be retiring when his term expired the following year. Smienk had been with the organization since 1992, when it began as the Columbia River Treaty Committee. He had seen the Trust through its transformation from a tiny group of like-minded individuals into a Crown corporation with funds and resources the committee could have never imagined. After nearly 15 years, the time had come for someone else to lead. “When you build an organization from scratch, the founding chair at some time has to leave,” Smienk explained.13 Founding Vice-Chair Garry Merkel stepped into the role. Smienk’s departure was part of a wider shift in the organization as founding members and early directors began to retire. Within the next few years, the Board would comprise almost entirely of new voices.

Through these shifts, the Trust’s staff was relied on. With their extensive knowledge of the Trust’s goals and operations, they were its memory. Long-time employee Aimee Ambrosone described the staff’s responsibility “to keep the culture, the spirit of the Trust alive. It’s also to indoctrinate the next generation in that spirit.”14 Many Trust employees across the Basin have enjoyed long careers with the Trust, sharing their skills and commitment across a variety of roles.


Achieving its mission has been a continuous process for the Trust. The organization must adapt to the Basin’s evolving needs and ideas. To make this happen, the Trust sought ways to grow through renewal and specialization. Part of this involved updating the Columbia Basin Management Plan (CBMP). Close to 10 years had passed since the Trust had created the original plan in 1997. In 2005, it began preparations for a renewed plan. As had been done when creating the original CBMP, the Trust invited residents to contribute. After working a year and a half with residents and advisory committees, the Trust prepared a draft plan and shared it at nine open houses across the region. Participants reviewed the plan to ensure it reflected their visions for the Basin. At the 2007 symposium, nearly 300 delegates gathered to share their ideas on the draft. “[We’re] not just going out there to say, ‘This is what we’re doing. Thank you very much,’” explained Neil Muth. “We really want a two-way discussion.”15 The final plan incorporated what was heard at the symposium and open houses. The consensus was positive. The Trust was on the right track.

The updated CBMP was divided into two parts: a charter to establish the Trust’s long-term vision, and a strategic plan to guide short-term priorities. By separating the document in this way, the Trust was able to keep its mandate alive while becoming more responsive to the Basin’s specific needs. The Trust’s founding vision had not changed. It would continue to work toward the same long-term goals for the Basin that were outlined in the 1997 plan. The Trust was dedicated to collaborating with residents and communities to achieve a legacy of social, economic and environmental well-being, and the updated charter recommitted the organization to values of respect, accountability and transparency in its operations.16 The vision and values communicated in the charter honoured the original plan and purpose for which the Trust was created and provided a launching pad for ongoing work.

Setting strategic priorities allowed the Trust to be adaptable in how it achieved its vision. While the original CBMP included a set of objectives, defining those objectives in a separate document gave the Trust flexibility in responding to shifting needs and ideas. The priorities continue to be updated about every five years based on public consultation. They focus on improving community engagement, ensuring the Trust’s resiliency as an organization, fostering quality of life and addressing critical issues in the Basin.

The 2007 symposium drew nearly 300 participants who came to Castlegar to learn about the Trust’s work and provide input on the new Columbia Basin Management Plan, which was nearing completion. The event included breakout sessions on climate change, employment and community planning and sustainability, as well as a keynote address by former Premier Mike Harcourt. Participants also had the opportunity to tour Arrow Lakes Generating Station and Brilliant Dam and Expansion. On Friday evening, participants and residents alike were invited to A Celebration of Sound — Basin Culture in Song & Voice, a free concert featuring musicians from across the region.

The Trust introduced formal strategic plans in 2009 to implement the priorities. The first strategic plans grouped priorities into three categories: social, environmental and economic. Like the strategic priorities, these plans are updated periodically based on public input. They underline goals and desired outcomes within each priority and identify what steps are needed to meet them. Often, this has meant creating new programs and partnerships. The Enterprising Non-Profits Program, for example, grew out of the Social Strategic Plan, with the goal of building the capacity of non-profit organizations in the Basin. The program provided guidance and grant money to help non-profits plan or operate a social enterprise. “Creating a social enterprise can give an organization the flexibility and revenue to be able to respond to a broader range of community needs,” said Rona Park, executive director for the Nelson CARES Society.17 Nelson CARES took advantage of the Enterprising Non- Profits Program to expand its Earth Matters Recycling initiative, which provides recycling services to local apartments and businesses. The initiative provided employment opportunities for people with disabilities, and the organization used profits to fund its emergency shelter, legal advocacy centre, seniors’ transportation service and other programming.

Strategic plans also expanded existing programs, like the Land Conservation Initiative. Started in 2002, the Land Conservation Initiative received renewed support through the 2009–2012 Environmental Strategic Plan. The plan outlined land conservation and stewardship as a way to support communities, build partnerships and strengthen the Basin’s ability to meet environmental challenges.18 The Trust took action by supporting community efforts to conserve places like Valhalla Mile and Slocan Island, building relationships with organizations like the Nature Conservancy of Canada to protect Lot 48 on Columbia Lake and Darkwoods Conservation Area.

Just as the Trust had consulted with people in the Basin to update its CBMP, resident input helped to refine the Trust’s investment policies. By 2005, the organization’s investment portfolio had just surpassed $43 million and continued to grow. The organization hired Johnny Strilaeff to oversee this portfolio as manager of investments. In this newly created position, Strilaeff guided the development of official investment policies and procedures.

Darkwoods Conservation Area

For thousands of years, grizzly bears, mountain caribou, wolves and countless other wildlife species shared this land with First Nations. In 1897, they were joined by settlers when Nelson & Sheppard Railway acquired the land, and later by multiple forestry corporations. It was not until 1967— when it was purchased by German Duke Carl Herzog von Württemberg — that Darkwoods got its name, in reference to Germany’s Black Forest.

Darkwoods became the annual vacation spot of the Duke and his family, and a potential escape should Germany be overtaken by the Soviet Union.19 He also ran a small forestry operation on the land. But after decades spent exploring the expansive 136,000-acre property, both financial strain and the increased difficulty of overseas travel for the aging Duke led the von Württembergs to sell Darkwoods. The Duke hoped to see the land go to someone who would conserve and protect his beloved landscape. The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) purchased the property in July 2008 in what was (and remains) the largest single private land acquisition for conservation purposes ever undertaken in Canada.20 The Trust’s involvement was also historic: it committed $500,000 to NCC’s efforts to protect Darkwoods. This was the Trust’s largest funding contribution to a single land conservation initiative.21 The Trust has continued to support NCC. In 2018, it contributed $650,000 toward the purchase of the Next Creek watershed, which expanded Darkwoods by another 19,500 acres. “Conserving the Next Creek watershed and expanding Darkwoods represents the fulfillment of a conservation vision that started over a decade ago,” said NCC BC Regional Vice President Nancy Newhouse, who added that the Trust’s “clear commitment to conservation has helped to make a real, on-the-ground difference to the people, wildlife and ecosystems of the Columbia Basin region.”22
Forester Roland Meyer worked in Darkwoods for nearly 40 years. Now retired, the NCC considers him an ambassador to the area.

The Trust consulted with both residents and experts to prepare the final policy. “We didn’t just lock ourselves in a room one day and say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do,’” Strilaeff explained.19 It took 64 drafts before the policy was approved in 2007. The final Statement of Investment Policies and Procedures maintained the Trust’s enduring commitment to keeping investments within the Basin. The statement underlined that the best-performing and most profitable investments should adhere to high ethical and environmental standards.20 The portfolio would stick to three categories: hydropower investments, market securities (such as bonds and stocks) and private placements. Private placements involved a direct investment in Basin businesses, either through loans or equity partnerships.25 The revenue from all investments would be used to fund delivery-of-benefits activities, cover operating costs or be further invested.

The strength of the Trust’s investment portfolio shielded the organization from the impacts of the global economic downturn of 2008. Because most of its investments were based on fixed, long-term agreements, the Trust’s revenues remained steady. For example, 85 per cent of revenues came from hydropower investments based on prearranged power sales agreements with BC Hydro and FortisBC.26 In fact, the Trust’s revenue was increasing. In 2009, a reported $9 million was delivered in benefits to the region, up 70 per cent from the previous year.27

The organization’s steady revenue, in spite of the 2008 recession, meant it could assist Basin communities that were not so fortunate. In the Basin, employment rates in 2008 declined by just over seven per cent and approximately 5,600 jobs were lost.28 The housing market was also down, and the forestry industry was in crisis. Forestry exports, already suffering because of continuing softwood lumber disputes between Canada and the United States, were reduced further when the demand for lumber plummeted in the wake of the American housing crisis.29 There were shutdowns across British Columbia, including Tembec’s East Kootenay operations, where 1,100 workers were affected by the temporary closures of the Elko and Canal Flats sawmills, the Cranbrook lumber plant and the Skookumchuk pulp mill in 2009.30 Shutdowns had a domino effect, impacting contractors who provided transportation and other services and eliminating wages that otherwise would have been pumped back into local businesses.

The Trust could not fix the recession or forestry crisis, but it could support the economy by providing training and employment programs, creating job opportunities and investing in services such as affordable housing. The Trust and Columbia Power hired over 400 local labourers to work on the Waneta Expansion project when construction began in 2010.31 It launched Summer Works and School Works in the early 2010s to provide small businesses with wage subsidies to hire high school and post-secondary students.

The early success of these programs led to co-op placements and apprenticeships to assist individuals interested in the trades. As affordable housing became a growing concern, the Trust invested in new developments and continued its support for seniors’ housing. The organization found a balance between responding to present economic and social challenges and securing protections against future issues.

Students and businesses across the Basin have benefitted from the Summer Works and School Works programs. In recent years, students have completed summer jobs at places like the Purcell Timber Frame Homes in Nelson, Happy Cow Ice Cream in Fernie, Pickle Patch in Creston and Derailed Sports in Golden.
The Trust supports workers and businesses through a variety of grant and investment programs. Through the Co-Op Wage Subsidy program, university student Harshit Kandpal gained valuable work experience with the City of Nelson. In 2019, the Apprentice Wage Subsidy Program helped Cranbrook’s Freightliner hire an apprentice mechanic. The year before, the Training Fee Support Program helped Alfred Moore of Winlaw gain the training he needed to become a logging truck driver.


The final piece of the Trust’s investment puzzle was Waneta Expansion. With construction beginning in 2010, Waneta Expansion added a second powerhouse that shares the existing hydraulic head, generating clean, renewable, cost-effective power from water that would otherwise be spilled. An ambitious project, valued at over $900 million, it was the Trust and Columbia Power’s biggest and most expensive undertaking, requiring nearly 10 years of planning and preparation before construction moved forward.

Equally ambitious was the partnership model. Extensive feasibility studies and lengthy power sales negotiations revealed that the Trust and Columbia Power needed a third partner to make the project viable. Not only was the project expensive, but it would need a buyer for the surplus capacity: the excess energy not required by the primary customer, BC Hydro. That third partner — and buyer — was Fortis Inc., Canada’s largest private utility company. Fortis signed an agreement with the Trust and Columbia Power in October 2010. The deal gave Fortis 51 per cent ownership over the project, with the remaining shares going to Columbia Power (32.5 per cent) and the Trust (16.5 per cent). Waneta Expansion became the first power project in British Columbia to be developed through a public-private partnership.32 Fortis would purchase any surplus capacity, an agreement that made the project economically viable, ensuring that sufficient revenue would be generated to make the project worthwhile.

Any reluctance about the decision to bring in an external partner was eased by the many benefits it produced. The project created job opportunities for women and people with disabilities. A First Nations liaison was brought on to maximize opportunities for First Nations workers. The Ktunaxa-owned contracting company Nupqu Development Corporation cleared the land to make way for the transmission line.33 Columbia Power also upheld its commitment to social and economic growth by ensuring that at least 70 per cent of the workforce was local. Waneta Expansion created over 1,400 jobs, which went a long way toward boosting employment in the Basin as the region continued its recovery from the 2008 recession.34 It also helped strengthen residents’ confidence in the Trust and signalled that the organization was back on track.

Full width and top: The Trust and Columbia Power’s most ambitious project, Waneta Expansion, was completed between 2010 and 2015. Grand opening celebrations were held in 2015 to mark the occasion and recognize the workers that made it happen. Waneta initially required a third partner, Fortis Inc., to make the project viable. By 2019, the Trust and Columbia Power bought back Fortis’ shares and obtained full joint ownership over the project.
Bottom: The Ktunaxa-owned Nupqu Development Corporation was contracted to clear land to make way for the 10-km transmission line for Waneta Expansion. This involved felling trees, clearing debris and salvaging timber. Nupqu also surveyed and cleared land for access roads.

The Trust had put residents first and restored the trust that had been eroding. It was working to manage its growth without losing sight of its original vision. Nor did the organization waver in the delivery of benefits, as it repaired relationships, fixed mistakes and readied itself for the future. Continued growth meant finding a balance between planning and action. The Trust had a clear charter and strong strategic priorities, an investment plan, refined policies and procedures and ways to measure and maximize success. It was a solid foundation upon which to continue. The Trust could move forward with a renewed sense of purpose and vision.