If you think there's something inherently funny about a town with no residents, know that Jumbo mayor Greg Deck disagrees with you.
After nearly five years of serving a rare human-free "mountain resort municipality" in southeastern BC, Deck has no trouble recapping the extremely standard procedure that appointed him and two councillors.
To paraphrase, Deck's job was made possible by a controversial ski resort project that has been bouncing in and out of public hearings for a quarter century. Jumbo Glacier Resort began as a 6,000-plus bed real estate proposal planned for East Kootenay's Purcell Mountains, complete with ski lifts, shops, hotels, and so on.
When local government became overloaded with complaints (made worse by "single issue candidates," says Deck), the province shuffled legislation in a way that gave Jumbo its own separate political powers. (To his credit, Deck does make this all sound very normal and boring: "The task the province gave us was to settle the land use question—to take it out of the regional district discussion," he told VICE.)
Jumbo resort has already outlasted many lawsuits, permit battles, construction setbacks, and protests. It has missed hard deadlines and mistakenly built foundations in avalanche zones. But it's latest hurdle might be its biggest so far. After months of deliberation, the Supreme Court of Canada will soon deliver a decision that could kill the project and redefine how the religious freedoms of Indigenous peoples are protected in Canada.
The Ktunaxa Nation has appealed to have the project scrapped for ruining spiritually significant land and impeding their freedom to practice religion. The area is known as Qat'muk, home of the "grizzly bear spirit" where the Ktunaxa go to seek guidance. They argue the proponent failed to consider Charter rights and adequately consult with the First Nation.
The judges are considering a deeply fascinating set of case material ranging from a Muslim association's take on the geography and significance of Mecca, to a recent court ruling on Hutterites' driver's licenses (photos required, turns out). The developer argues the Ktunaxa fundamentally changed their position in 2009, asserting "a veto over the development of the resort in any form." Two lower courts have sided with the developer.
Deck won't speculate on the court outcome, but spells out his own position on the peaceful coexistence of Indigenous spirituality and ski lifts.
"If I thought they were completely incompatible I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now. I think there are ways to respect a location without putting it into some kind of reserve," he said. "It's not an enormous loss of habitat, or a big change in the character of region. But it's used as a symbol of development, so it's a difficult one to predict."
Deck's gig has always been more about waiting than anything else. In the meantime, he says he actively tries not to think too much about Jumbo. "I don't dwell on it," he told VICE.
When I called on Friday morning, Deck was mowing the lawn of the RV campsite he manages on the outskirts of Radium, BC. "I'm still a small business operator in a resort town in the Canadian Rockies… I run the front desk, I do the books, I mow the lawn," he said. "It's the same thing I've been doing for 37 years… Small town politics is not a full time job for most."
I ask if Deck still feels the confidence he expressed in a mayor's message posted to the municipality's website: "The Jumbo Glacier Resort has successfully navigated one of the most demanding approval processes ever undertaken in British Columbia," it reads. "I am confident that generations of Kootenay residents will enjoy the access to the remarkable terrain that the resort offers and that they will proudly bring visitors to show them our region at its best."
Deck tells me I'm the only one reading it. "I can predict with some confidence that there will be some kind of alpine ski resort on that site, just because it's a perfect place for it," he said. "If it takes a while longer than my tenure, that's entirely possible."
Evidence presented by the Ktunaxa and Amnesty International certainly begs to differ. The First Nation says the development will cause the "grizzly bear spirit" to leave and their spiritual practice will be rendered meaningless. AI adds that the resort doesn't pass the kind of public interest test needed to justify that kind of breach.
Even if the Ktunaxa lose, that's not an automatic win for Jumbo. The project's environmental permits expired in 2015, so the developer will probably have to reapply from the beginning, a decade lost. A scaled down version of the resort has so far been rejected by the province.
The project will also be facing a radically different political climate. If the new NDP-Green alliance successfully unseats Premier Christy Clark and holds on to power on June 22, statements by both leaders suggest little sympathy for the developer or Deck.
In fact, earlier this year BC Greens' Andrew Weaver introduced legislation against creating resident-free municipalities like Jumbo, while NDP's John Horgan has asked BC to "stop giving hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to a town that doesn't exist and maybe reallocate those resources to communities that can use it."
It's not like Deck has personally been getting rich overseeing the bylaws and annual reports of a human-free wilderness—taxpayers compensated him just over $5,600 in 2016. But the town has been receiving $250,000-a-year government grants. With a half mill sitting in reserve, he says they've been working to defer the last two years of payment.
All this to say it will be many more years before humans move to Jumbo. This year's construction season will already be lost. That brings us to 2018, a local election year in BC, but Deck doesn't feel too bothered about sitting out a second campaign. "As you know Jumbo has no voters, so election is not an issue we face as mayor and councillors. We'll either be re-appointed or not, or we could choose not to take those appointments."
The way things look now, Deck isn't deterred by the drama that has followed this project, or the awkward light it casts on his grizzly bear-populated community. "It's difficult when you're dealing something that has more more symbolic value than anything else."
"It's like Kinder Morgan, or what Keystone XL was and may still become," he said. "You tend to have groups who fundamentally disagree about bunch of things facing off against each other."
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