Canadian court clears way for ski resort on mountain sacred to indigenous people

Glacier Resorts Ltd. is planning a ski resort in this mountainous region of British Columbia considered sacred by the Ktunaxa First Nation. (Image from www.ktunaxa.org)

The Supreme Court of Canada has declined to block a proposed ski resort in British Columbia that members of the Ktunaxa First Nation say would jeopardize their way of life. According to the ruling, the Ktunaxa people have a right to believe that the Grizzly Bear Spirit inhabits Qat’muk, the traditional name for the region where the resort is planned, and that the spirit will be driven from the mountain in the event of permanent development.

But the court also upheld a lower court ruling that the government is not required to “protect the presence of Grizzly Bear Spirit itself” in order to preserve the right to freedom of religion. All nine judges who heard the case ruled against the Ktunaxa’s request to stop the development in what is also called the Jumbo Glacier area, planned by Glacier Resorts and approved by the government, in a decision issued on Nov. 2.

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The court said the government is not required to “protect the presence of Grizzly Bear Spirit itself” in order to preserve freedom of religion.

“Our spirituality and our culture, that’s what gives us strength,” says Rennie Nahanee, an elder in the Squamish First Nation in Vancouver who condemned the ruling as “ongoing colonization” in Canada. Mr. Nahanee says the religious traditions of First Nations people in Canada are often misunderstood or ignored. “Singing our songs, doing practices—this is us, this is who we are, this is the land that we lived on.”

“It’s my belief that this land, before settlement, was given to us,” says Mr. Nahanee. “Our culture, and our lives and our spirituality grew up all around this land. That is very important to us because the land was our life, is our life still. So for us to continue as a people we have to be land-based. We live in community.”

In Canadian courts, “there is often a Eurocentric kind of view of land and resources,” says lawyer John Olthuis. His firm, Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP, joined the case on behalf of Shibogama First Nations Council. “It’s a view in line with some of the old teachings of having dominion over the land, rather than living in harmony and being interconnected with the earth and animals and so on.

In Canadian courts, “there is often a Eurocentric kind of view of land and resources."

“We tried to make the argument that this other kind of expression should have protection, and the court very strangely said, ‘Yes, sort of, but you can’t protect a place.’”

Two judges agreed with the decision but filed a separate opinion saying that if the land were developed, the beliefs of the Ktunaxa First Nation “would become entirely devoid of religious significance, and accordingly, their prayers, ceremonies, and rituals associated with Grizzly Bear Spirit would become nothing more than empty words and hollow gestures. Moreover, without their spiritual connection to Qat’muk and to Grizzly Bear Spirit, the Ktunaxa would be unable to pass on their beliefs and practices to future generations.”

The latter point is especially important given the history of residential schools in Canada, when indigenous children were removed from their families and forced to attend private, largely Catholic-run boarding schools. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada that formally ended in 2015 found that the schools were designed to alienate indigenous people from their traditions and prevent the transmission of their culture to new generations.

The approval of the proposed development “interferes with the Ktunaxa’s ability to act in accordance with their religious beliefs or practices in a manner that is more than trivial or insubstantial,” the two judges concluded. In the end, however, both agreed that the approval of the development by the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations in British Columbia was reasonable. The judges argued that a ruling in favor of the Ktunaxa would grant them a “right of exclusion” that would preclude any future development.

But Mr. Olthuis suggests precluding future development is precisely the point, given the spiritual relationship of indigenous people to the land. “My clients over the years have often been in discussions where they said: ‘Well, what if we went into your cathedrals, like in Westminster or the Vatican, and started tearing the place apart? That’s how it feels to us when you come into our land and start clear-cutting our forests, having no respect for our traditions,’” says Mr. Olthuis, whose firm specializes in indigenous rights cases.

“What if we went into your cathedrals, like in Westminster or the Vatican, and started tearing the place apart?”

Alongside indigenous and civil rights organizations, some faith-based legal teams and communities joined the Ktunaxa in the case, including the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Kootenay Presbytery of the United Church of Canada. Bishop John Corriveau, O.F.M., of the Diocese of Nelson, which covers the disputed territory, says he was asked to join the plaintiffs on behalf of the Catholic Church, but the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops decided against it.

Bishop Corriveau says that while the C.C.C.B. did not intervene in this particular case, he thinks the Catholic Church in Canada is trying to find ways to connect with indigenous people. “We just had a conference for the clergy to try to conscientize them on sensitivity to native issues,” he says, noting that the presence of the Catholic Church among First Nations communities has been “greatly reduced” in his diocese over the last few decades.

Bishop Corriveau says most of the clergy in his diocese were not born in Canada and are unaware of its history of indigenous people. “We probably have one of the weakest native ministries that I know of in most of western Canada,” he says.

It is a problem he says the diocese is taking steps to address by finding local issues to engage, including trying to advocate for a more just renegotiation of the 1964 Columbia River Treaty between the United States and Canada allowing for the development of dams and flood control measures along that river—which Bishop Corriveau says was negotiated made without concern for how the treaty would disrupt indigenous ways of life.

In addition to his role as an elder in the Squamish community, Mr. Nahanee is a deacon at St. Paul’s Indian Catholic Church. He says the Catholic Church in Canada could help the nation’s indigenous communities by trying to understand their spirituality on its own terms. He says indigenous people need Christians of various denominations “to realize that indigenous people have their own spirituality and that has to remain unchanged.”

Following the court decision, the future of Qat’muk is in the hands of the provincial government of British Columbia, which is governed by a coalition of the left-wing New Democratic Party and the Green Party. Mr. Olthuis says cases like this are a good reason why Canada should adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which has stricter regulations requiring consent from indigenous communities regarding land use. On Nov. 21, the national Liberal Party announced it would back a bill introduced by Romeo Sagansh, a member of Parliament from the New Democratic Party, to fully adopt and implement the declaration.

Mr. Nahanee hopes the Catholic Church in Canada will find new ways to support indigenous struggles. After attending a regional meeting of the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, Calif., earlier this year, Mr. Nahanee says a similar meeting in Canada might go a long way toward making space for necessary conversations: “I would like to see that kind of role for the church in Canada, hosting some event where we can gather people together and they could learn from each other about what they’re doing in their communities to try to stop things like pipelines or even just make people aware.”

In the meantime, both Bishop Corriveau and Mr. Nahanee suggest education is an important step for Catholics to understand and advocate for indigenous rights, and both cite Pope Francis’s encyclical “Laudato Si’” as a helpful tool.

In that document, Pope Francis says indigenous people should be “principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed” (146), and he highlights how indigenous commitments to the land are connected to the ecological health of Earth, “our common home.” Though it is tempting to see the loss of the Ktunaxa people in court as an isolated legal battle, Mr. Nahanee says, “people should realize this is not just an indigenous fight.”

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