The Canadian Press
OTTAWA –Approval of a ski resort in a region held sacred by Indigenous people does not violate their constitutional right to freedom of religion, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Thursday.
The high court decision means the proposed resort development in southeastern British Columbia is a step closer to reality.
The Ktunaxa Nation consider the land at the foot of Jumbo Mountain to be sacred and say construction of the resort would drive away Grizzly Bear Spirit, a principal figure of their religious beliefs, from an area known as Qat’muk.
They argued that charter of rights protections for freedom of religion must include not only spiritual beliefs, but also underlying sacred sites _ in this case the presence of Grizzly Bear Spirit in Qat’muk.
The Supreme Court ruled that religious protections under the charter do not extend that far, covering only the freedom to hold such beliefs and the right to manifest them through worship and teaching.
“In short, the charter protects the freedom to worship, but does not protect the spiritual focal point of worship,” a majority of the court ruled.
The Supreme Court also found the B.C. minister of forests, lands and natural resource operations “did not act unreasonably” in deciding the constitutional obligation to consult the Ktunaxa about their concerns had been met.
“We arrive at these conclusions cognizant of the importance of protecting Indigenous religious beliefs and practices and the place of such protection in achieving reconciliation between Indigenous Peoples and non-Indigenous communities,” the reasons for judgment said.
The ruling stems from a suit filed by the Ktunaxa after Glacier Resorts received B.C. government approval to proceed with the project.
The company plans to build a year-round ski resort with lifts to glacier runs and overnight accommodation for guests and staff.
For more than two decades, Glacier has been negotiating with the provincial government and interested parties, including the Ktunaxa and Shuswap peoples living in the Jumbo Valley.
Early in the process, the Indigenous groups raised concerns about the development. Consultations led to significant changes in the proposal, satisfying the Shuswap people.
The Ktunaxa continued to have concerns and after lengthy discussions it appeared there would be an agreement. But late in the process they took the position the planned resort would make Grizzly Bear Spirit flee.
After renewed efforts to revive the talks, the government declared that reasonable consultation had taken place and approved the project.
The Ktunaxa were unsuccessful in trying to overturn the decision in the B.C. courts, prompting the appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.