After twice losing legal arguments about the need to protect a sacred valley where the spirit of the grizzly bear "goes to heal itself," the Ktunaxa will take their religious-rights case to the Supreme Court of Canada.
In a decision released Thursday, the court agreed to hear the dispute, which revolves around the government-approved plans of a developer to turn an area in B.C.'s Upper Jumbo Valley into a major ski resort.
"I was sitting at my computer monitoring the Supreme Court site when the decision came out; I saw it and was ecstatic," said Kathryn Teneese, chair of the Ktunaxa Nation Council.
The Ktunaxa claim the remote valley in southeast B.C. is a sacred site, known as Qat'muk, that will be "desecrated" if Jumbo Glacier Resort goes ahead. They argue that would violate their Charter rights to religious freedom.
The Ktunaxa faith involves the belief that grizzly bears carry a spirit that is an important source of strength for their people. They fear that if the development goes ahead, the bears will leave the valley and the spiritual connection will be lost.
"Qat'muk is a very special place where Klawa Tuklulak?is, the Grizzly Bear Spirit, was born, goes to heal itself, and returns to the spirit world," according to the Qat'muk Declaration, a statement issued by the Ktunaxa.
The Qat'muk Declaration says the Ktunaxa people have a religious duty to protect the valley and the bears that live in it.
"Our right to freedom of religion should not be held in less regard than that of other Canadians," Ms. Teneese said. "We are confident that the Supreme Court of Canada will agree that Ktunaxa beliefs and practices are vital to who we are and must be taken into account by statutory decision makers."
Twice before – in the Supreme Court of B.C., in 2014, and in the B.C. Court of Appeal in 2015 – the religious-freedoms argument has been rejected.
B.C. Supreme Court heard that an elder, Chris Luke Sr., met with government officials and informed them of the sacred nature of the Jumbo area.
"At that meeting, Mr. Luke spoke in the Ktunaxa language and was translated into English. He advised the Minister that Qat'muk was 'a life and death matter,' and the 'Jumbo is one of the major spiritual places' and that to say the sacredness of the area for the Ktunaxa was important would be an understatement," the B.C. Supreme Court judgment notes.
But, despite that the judge ruled the government had not acted improperly in approving the development plan. The B.C. Court of Appeal later endorsed that finding.
In both rulings, the courts said the B.C. Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations acted appropriately in approving a master development agreement for Jumbo Glacier Resort. The B.C. courts held the government adequately consulted with the Ktunaxa before making the decision, and found that the right to religious freedom did not extend to stopping a landowner from legally developing a site.
It is those decisions that the Supreme Court of Canada has now agreed to review.
Ms. Teneese said she's hopeful that the nation's top court will overturn the B.C. judgments. "I'm hoping that it will stop the project."
She said that, despite the trials in B.C. and years of consultations with government, the Ktunaxa do not feel their religious concerns have been understood or seriously listened to.
"When a question like we posed is being considered by the Supreme Court, it's obviously recognizing the issue we're bringing forward is important and now we have an opportunity hopefully to be heard on this issue," she said.
A provincial government spokesman declined comment as the matter is before the courts. A spokesperson for Glacier Resorts Ltd. was not available.