While the U.S.-Canada border remains closed to non-essential traffic, neither the pandemic shutdown nor the 49th Parallel and Strait of Juan de Fuca have obstructed the bonding between Washington and British Columbia.
Two signals have come this month.
Victoria and eight other Vancouver Island communities are no longer dumping raw sewage into the Strait. Decades in the making, a new state of the art treatment plant in Esquimalt has begun operation, celebrated in a buddy phone call between Washington Governor Jay Inslee and B.C. Premier John Horgan.
The premier has also tapped provincial legislator Rick Glumac to serve as Liaison for the State of Washington, tasked with “ensuring our government remains engaged in cross-border issues.” Horgan and Inslee have multiple irons in the fire, from protection of the Salish Sea to a high-speed rail link for the region.
The United States and Canada share the world’s longest peaceful border. B.C. shares a boundary with Washington, Idaho and Montana, as well as a border with Alaska topped by the 15,300’ Mount Fairweather.
It is, however, a boundary that has endured stress.
The late Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau (father of Justin) likened life next door to “the States” to being in bed with an eight hundred-pound gorilla: “You feel every twitch.” On a memorable White House tape, President Nixon was heard calling the elder Trudeau “an asshole.” To which Trudeau replied, “I’ve been called worse things by better men.” A private chuckle for Canadians: The tree planted by Nixon on Parliament Hill in Ottawa grew up crooked.
“This is a sovereign country,” then‑B.C. Premier Dave Barrett once intoned to a visiting “Yank reporter.” Canada has needed to stress that point, such as when Premier Jean Chretien would not join the “coalition” organized by President George W. Bush to invade Iraq. A visit by Chretien to Bush’s Texas ranch was called off, and the pliant Prime Minister of Australia welcomed in his stead.
The links of Washington and B.C. have undergone stress at times. Inslee and Horgan are avuncular guys, both onetime high school jocks, both progressives, so the relationship at present is cordial – with pandemic-caused distance keeping.
It wasn’t always so. In the late 1970s, Canada’s National Energy Board raised the price of fossil gas exports to the United States. Washington Natural Gas had put big bucks behind the 1976 campaign of Governor Dixy Lee Ray. It decided to cash in, sending Ray over to Victoria in a bid to challenge the gas price hike.
As often the case, Ray did not read her briefing papers.
She arrived under the impression that Premier Bill Bennett could roll back the price increase. Over lunch in the Bengal Room of the Empress Hotel, with a couple drinks in her, Dixy demanded that Bennett do just that.
Bennett tried to explain Canada’s government, noting that the National Energy Board was a federal, not provincial, agency. The governor then told the premier he could take B.C.’s gas and put it where the moon don’t shine. Ray landed back in Seattle, called a press conference, and urged Washingtonians to shift to oil.
Washington Natural Gas took months repairing the damage. A serious guy, Premier Bennett would break out in a broad smile when the incident came up.
Years later, however, Governor Christine Gregoire and Premier Gordon Campbell lobbied successfully to expand Amtrak’s cross border Cascades rail service in advance of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
Then-Vice President Joe Biden led America’s delegation to opening ceremonies, after raising money in Seattle for Senator Patty Murray.
Personalities play on the international stage.
When Mike Lowry was elected governor in 1992, B.C. Premier, and basketball player, Mike Harcourt ran down a list of sports in search of bonding. Did Lowry play golf? Was Mike a basketball player? Was Lowry into rugby?
In the late 1990s, Washington-bound coho salmon populations were in steep decline. Warm waters in Canada’s Fraser River threatened the early Stuart sockeye salmon, who had an eight hundred and ninety mile upstream journey to their spawning grounds.
Both Governor Gary Locke and Canada’s environment minister David Anderson (MP from Victoria) had crossed swords with B.C. Premier Glen Clark. The sharing of a mutual dislike – along with sharing of baby pictures, since Locke and Anderson became papas relatively late in life – greased the way for a deal.
Canada would restrict sport fishing for U.S.-bound coho off Vancouver Island. U.S. fishers would not hammer Fraser-bound sockeye.
Inslee tried to raise the question of Victoria sewage dumping during his first term. He was blown off by B.C. Premier Christy Clark, Horgan’s predecessor. The governor received a valid form letter from B.C. environment minister Mark Polak.
It’s been different with Horgan and Inslee.
Both want fast trains. Both have opposed the TransMountain Pipeline, the 890,000-barrel-a-day pipeline that would bring Alberta oil to an export terminal in Burnaby, just east of Vancouver. The pipeline would bring a sevenfold increase in tanker traffic through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Haro Strait, which separates our San Juan Islands from the Gulf Islands of B.C.
The Canadian government is bulling ahead with the six hundred and twenty mile long pipeline from Edmonton to Burnaby, despite its tenuous economics. Inslee and Horgan have sought to point out that tankers would traverse sensitive marine waters. A spill would have catastrophic consequences for fisheries, marine life, the recreation economy, and national park properties in both countries.
“We stand on guard for thee” are familiar words from the national anthem O Canada. They carry meaning when your bedmate is an eight hundred point gorilla.
Long ago, the fall of 1964, President Lyndon Johnson and Canada’s P.M. Lester Pearson met at the Peace Arch to sign the Columbia River Treaty. They were joined by flamboyant B.C. Premier W.A.C. “Wacky” Bennett. The treaty provided for construction of three dams upstream in British Columbia, to store water that would power the great third powerhouse at Grand Coulee Dam.
As I write this piece, on a cold, dark late December day, the third powerhouse is helping keep lights on throughout the Northwest.
But… Wacky Bennett was taken to the cleaners. The three dams did great environmental damage north of the border, killing wildlife and giving the beautiful Arrow Lakes a fluctuating shoreline and dust storms. B.C. did not immediately need its share of power from the Treaty. Bennett sold it all for one lump sum. As Bennett beamed, giant replica of the check was displayed at the Peace Arch.
As three decades went by, the value of that electricity increased enormously, but British Columbia was locked into Wacky Bennett’s deal.
Impacts are still felt on occasion.
Stupidly, they didn’t log out the ninety mile long reservoir behind Mica Dam on the Upper Columbia. Canoeists on the Kimbasket reservoir have experienced trees breaking loose deep in the lake and popping to the surface.
Not surprisingly, renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty is a bigger issue in “Beautiful British Columbia” than down here in “the States.”