First Nations

Indigenous Land Not Sacred Enough to Block BC Ski Resort, Supreme Court Rules

The Ktunaxa First Nation’s religious complaint against Jumbo Glacier Ski Resort has been thrown out by Canada’s top court.
November 2, 2017, 5:16pm
Image via Jumbo Wild

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that a massive ski resort does not infringe on a First Nation's constitutional right to practice their religion, extending the lifespan of a development that has faced decades of opposition.

The developers behind Jumbo Glacier Ski Resort have proposed a 6,000-plus bed year-round ski town for British Columbia's Purcell Mountains. Since Italian-born architect Oberto Oberti first unveiled his "master plan" for the area in 1991, the project has drawn criticism from environmentalists, local governments, First Nations, competing ski businesses, and hockey hall-of-famer Scott Niedermayer.

The Ktunaxa Nation has argued that the area is sacred, known as Qat'muk or home of the "grizzly bear spirit." The First Nation claimed building an all-seasons resort will push away the spirit and render their religious practices meaningless.

Seven of Canada's nine Supreme Court Justices found that religious rights would not be violated by the development, which would build 23 ski lifts, hotels, shops, and a 3,000-metre gondola. The decision reads that "neither the Ktunaxa's freedom to hold their beliefs nor their freedom to manifest those beliefs is infringed by the [government's] decision to approve the project."

Two other justices found constitutional religious rights were violated, but that it was a reasonable infringement in the public interest. Conversely, the decision argues that siding with the First Nation would undermine public interest by giving them full ownership.

"Granting the Ktunaxa a power to veto development over the land would effectively give them a significant property interest in Qat'muk—namely, a power to exclude others from constructing permanent structures on public land," reads part of the decision. "This right of exclusion would not be a minimal or negligible restraint on public ownership."

Ktunaxa National Council Chair Kathryn Teneese called the decision "alarming." "With this decision, the Supreme Court of Canada is telling every indigenous person in Canada that your culture, history and spirituality, all deeply linked to the land, are not worthy of legal protection from the constant threat of destruction," she said. "This judgment should be alarming to Canadians whether or not they consider themselves religious or spiritual."*

Though Jumbo now has a green light from Canada's top court, it still has more hurdles to clear. The project's environmental permits expired back in 2015, and proposals to scale down the project have failed. Before the expiry, the company only managed to pour a few concrete foundations—some of them located in avalanche hazard zones.

Part of the last BC government's effort to manage opposition to the project included creating a resident-free mountain municipality. For five years, Jumbo Mayor Greg Deck has overseen the grizzly-populated town with no roads, buildings or voters to speak of.

The current NDP government, backed by the Green party, has opposed the creation of the resort town. BC Greens' Andrew Weaver has introduced legislation against creating resident-free municipalities like Jumbo, while NDP Premier 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."

VICE reached out to BC's environment ministry for comment, but did not immediately hear back.

Follow Sarah Berman on Twitter.

*Updated with comment from Ktunaxa leadership November 2, 1:35 PM ET.