Court hears Ktunaxa religious claim against Jumbo Glacier Ski Resort

Supreme Court to resolve the dispute relating to a First Nation’s right to religious freedom.

  • Dec. 9, 2016 5:00 p.m.

By Ezra Black

On Dec. 1, about a dozen representatives from the Ktunaxa Nation asked the Supreme Court of Canada to scrap a proposed ski resort in the Jumbo Valley.

The Ktunaxa say the development would desecrate sacred land practices in the valley, which they call “Qat’muk.”

Kathryn Teneese, Ktunaxa Nation Council Chair said the Jumbo Valley is of vital spiritual importance as it is the home of ‘Grizzly Bear Spirit’ upon which many of the First Nation’s spiritual practices depend.

“We believe that both the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Constitution Act provide us with the right to freely practice our traditions,” said Teneese in a statement.

The proposed Jumbo Glacier Resort would offer year-round skiing on a series of high elevation glaciers in the Upper Jumbo Valley in the Purcell Mountains, 55 kilometres west of Invermere.

The province is arguing the resort will not infringe on the Ktunaxa’s right to freedom of religion.

The case will be the first time the Supreme Court resolves a dispute relating to a First Nation’s right to religious freedom under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Ktunaxa Nation has been opposed to the Jumbo Glacier Resort since it was first proposed in 1991. In addition to spiritual concerns, the First Nation also worry the resort would affect wildlife populations, biodiversity and water quality.

The province approved the Jumbo Glacier ski resort development in March 2012 but the Ktunaxa appealed the decision.

The British Columbia Supreme Court and Court of Appeal sided with the province but in June 2015, B.C.’s Environment Minister announced that the proposed resort had not met its October 12, 2014 substantial start threshold. As a result of the decision, development of the project cannot proceed.

Kootenay-based conservation group Wildsight have thrown their support behind the Ktunaxa.

“We understand from Ktunaxa that Qat’muk is where the Grizzly Bear Spirit was born, goes to heal itself and returns to the spirit world,” said Robyn Duncan, Wildsight’s executive director. “The Grizzly Bear Spirit is an important source of guidance, strength, protection and spirituality for the Ktunaxa. Qat’muk’s importance for the Grizzly Bear Spirit is inextricably linked with its importance for living grizzly bears now and in the future.”

The project would consist of a gondola, three glacier T-bars for winter and summer skiing, and two chairlifts. A resort of 6,250 beds, including 750 beds for staff housing was planned.

Another First Nation, the Shuswap Indian Band, which also has claims to the territory, has been supportive of the project and signed an Impact Management and Benefits Agreement.

Oberto Oberti, the Vancouver-based developer behind Jumbo Glacier Resort, said he hopes the project will go forward.

He said Jumbo would be a relatively modestly sized ski resort with a footprint less than 10 per cent the size of the Whistler Blackcomb resort.

“Our interpretation of the claim, which was represented in court, is that the project does not in fact violate anyone’s ability to believe in their faith, or practice it,” he said. “And we also believe that every effort has been made to respect community and First Nation’s concerns.”

Oberti touted the economic benefits of the project, which would cost $15 to 20 million a year in construction expenditures for a period of twenty years. It would provide about 4,000 construction jobs and then 750 to 800 full-time resort jobs.

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