A pristine region in southeastern British Columbia known to the local First Nation as Qat'muk, the place where "grizzly bear spirits" gather, would be profoundly transformed if a $450-million year-round ski resort is built.
For that reason, a lawyer for the Ktunaxa Nation told a B.C. Supreme Court judge on Monday that the Jumbo Glacier Resort cannot be allowed to go ahead.
The B.C. government approved the project in March, 2012, but the First Nation is asking the court to review the legislation, as it keeps in mind the band's spiritual connection to the land. Lawyer Peter Grant, who is representing the Ktunaxa Nation, said the province's decision violates the religious rights of a band that has already suffered years of cultural persecution through native residential schools.
"This is a place where we have to say no. This dispossession of the culture of the Ktunaxa has to stop here," he said.
The project's approval also undermines Prime Minister Stephen Harper's 2008 public apology for the treatment of residential school children, and his promise of reconciliation, Mr. Grant said.
"This question of a knowledge of shared history, of respect for each other, and desire to move forward together with an understanding of different cultures – unfortunately the legacy of the decision before you shows the very opposite," he told Justice John Savage.
Mr. Grant called the judicial review a challenging one that could be instrumental in determining the direction Canada will go in its relationship with aboriginal peoples.
Jumbo Glacier Resort has been more than two decades in the making and is expected to be North America's first year-round ski resort. It would be built in B.C.'s Purcell Mountains, about 55 kilometres from Invermere and 250 kilometres west of Calgary.
The resort's base area is expected to cover 110 hectares, where everything from hotels and condominiums to restaurants, gift shops and ski schools would be built. It is also expected to draw between 550,000 and 800,000 visitors a year.
Construction work on the resort began last summer, but it was halted briefly when protesters tried to block machinery from going up Farnham Glacier.
Mr. Grant said the resort proposal is "diametrically opposed" to the significance of Qat'muk, an area where the Ktunaxa Nation has lived since "time immemorial." Qat'muk is integral to the band's culture because it is home to grizzly bears and "grizzly bear spirits" that carry prayers to the Ktunaxa's creator, he said.
Mr. Grant said the province was well aware of the significance of Qat'muk to the Ktunaxa Nation, yet it barely mentioned it when it approved the project in March, 2012.
The Ktunaxa Nation launched the court challenge in late 2012, saying the province did not take into account the band's spiritual connection to the land. Kathryn Teneese, chair of the Ktunaxa Nation Council, said she hopes the judicial review will force the province to reconsider its decision.
"We've heard several expressions over the years of reconciliation – and I'm saying it sort of in quotes – but when it comes down to practice, we really haven't seen too much of that on the ground," she said in an interview outside the courthouse. "So we're hopeful that if we get a decision that goes in our favour, it will be an expression … to say that the words spoken by people as high as the prime minister of this country is indeed real."
Jumbo Glacier's website says it hopes to achieve a "near no-net-impact" on the grizzly bear population with "mitigation measures." It also says the Ktunaxa did not "reveal any special 'sacred' significance to the project area for 20 years, despite lengthy and repeated consultations."
Ms. Teneese admitted the band initially focused more on the resort's potential environmental impacts during consultations with the province, but members did mention that the area was considered a spiritual place.
"We didn't go into detail because we were involved in the other exercises that we hoped would address the concerns," she said.
Ms. Teneese says the Ktunaxa Nation has discussed a "Plan B" in case the court rules in the province's favour, but she did not disclose details.
Ten days have been set aside for the court challenge. Lawyers representing the province are expected to make their arguments next week.