Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) After receiving no answer by the end of the summer, the Ktunaxa Nation, including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, have set a November deadline for a meeting between the U.S., Canada and tribes to discuss the selenium pollution in the Elk and Kootanei rivers caused by Canadian coal mines, according to a press release issued Wednesday.

“We must come to a solution before the end of the year — we were strung along in 2022, and then again in 2023 with a target of end of summer. The governments need to show that their deadlines, and their intent to meet them, are meaningful. We cannot accept any more broken promises. We have been asking for action on this issue for more than a decade, and we can’t wait any longer,” said ʔaq̓ anqmi Vice-Chairman Gary Aitken, Jr., in the release.

After a decade of urging action to stop the pollution, 11 tribal nations, including the Ktunaxa, sent a letter early this year to the Canadian government asking that it do something about the mining in the Elk River drainage of British Columbia because the associated selenium pollution is harming the fish, waters and lands of the Ktunaxa. In particular, the letter asked that the two governments send a request, or reference, to the International Joint Commission to investigate the transboundary pollution.

In late March, as part of a joint statement addressing several transboundary issues, President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had said they, in partnership with tribal nations, would “reach an agreement in principle” on reducing the effects of water pollution in the Elk-Kootenai watershed.

The joint statement heartened the tribes initially, but a few months went by with no action. In May, Gov. Greg Gianforte wrote a letter urging U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to delay involving the International Joint Commission, calling the step “premature.”

In June, the Ktunaxa leaders took charge and developed their own solution, which they sent to the two governments on July 20. The Ktunaxa’s two-pronged approach asked that the International Joint Commission be assigned to the problem and that the federal governments work with the Ktunaxa Nation to address violations of the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty, the U.S. Clean Water Act and the Canadian Fisheries Act and implement solutions to restore the waters.

However, the Canadian government has repeatedly refused to consider bringing in the International Joint Commission.

In August, George Heyman, British Columbia’s Environment minister, confirmed to The Canadian Press that the province had proposed in July that the International Joint Commission act as a neutral third party in the investigation of mine contamination.

Again, the Ktunaxa were encouraged, but the Canadian government refused to follow suit. Wednesday’s release said Canada waited until Sept. 21, one day before the end of summer deadline, to acknowledge receiving the Ktunaxa proposal but went no further.

“With B.C. on board, we now have all crucial governments in support of an IJC reference, except for Canada. We simply can’t understand what is holding Canada back and keeping them from honoring their promises to Indigenous peoples, the environment, and the International Boundary Waters Treaty,” said Tom McDonald, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes chairman in the release.

After tribal representatives attending a conference in late September in British Columbia heard a Global Affairs Canada representative say that “Canada knows that they are late with their homework,” the Ktunaxa decided to set their own deadline of November.

Earlier this month, Rob Sission, a Montana-based member of the International Joint Commission, appeared before the Legislative Environmental Quality Council to explain what the commission would probably do if Canada and the U.S. finally issue a reference to look into the Elk River-Lake Koocanusa selenium issue.

Studies show that more than 90% of the selenium in Lake Koocanusa comes from just north of the Canadian border in the Elk River mines of British Columbia, which is a violation of the Boundary Waters Treaty.

“The selenium issue will be an issue for a thousand years. So it seems like we need a framework that’s going to be there for a long time to monitor and report so all the players, all the scientists, all the governments know what’s going on in real time as opposed to the vagaries of budgets, staffing, whether it’s the state, federal or provincial governments getting it done,” Sisson told the legislators. “The IJC would be accountable to provide that information and make sure everyone has it on an ongoing basis.”

Sen. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, told Sisson that the tribes seemed to be getting fed up with all the delays, and warned that, at some point, the Ktunaxa might take the governments to court.

They’d likely win, because Sission said the selenium pollution violates the treaty.“Under the (Boundary Waters Treaty), it says neither side can send pollution across the boundary. To the IJC, this is a clear violation of the treaty, and if there’s not a reference on this, then the treaty which has worked really well for 120 years is pretty much useless,” Sisson told the legislators.

The traditional lands of the Ktunaxa Nation covers approximately 727,000 square miles within the Kootenay region of south-eastern British Columbia and historically included parts of Alberta, Montana, Washington and Idaho. Five Bands of the Ktunaxa are located in British Columbia and two are in the U.S., according to the Ktunaxa Nation website.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at