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A cornerstone of Indigenous Culture

The Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre celebrates 10 years in Whistler

This is a story about the ties that bind. It begins long ago and continues to this day.

For thousands of years, members of the seafaring Squamish Nation and the interior-based Lil'wat Nation lived together in a shared village. It was called Spo7ez, in the heart of the present-day Sea to Sky corridor, located where Rubble Creek and the Cheakamus River meet and flow together. For a long time, the villagers lived in harmony—working together, trading, sharing—until one day, discord among the people began to grow. The Thunderbird, whose home is at Black Tusk, began to take note, watching from high above. The discord grew and grew until the Thunderbird decided to take action, flapping his wings and sending a message to the people in the form of a devastating rockslide that covered the village. Hundreds perished at Spo7ez. For those that survived to the tell the tale, the Thunderbird had a message: go back to your families—the Squamish people to the south and the ocean, the Lil'wat people north to "where the rivers meet." They would have a better chance of survival through the dark and cold winters if they returned to their ancestral homelands.

That could have been the end of the story. But the people took heed of its message.

"The lesson behind that story is that we all need to get along, that we need to coexist with one another peacefully in order to have a healthy future," says Lil'wat Nation member Sutikem Bikadi, belying her 21 years. "In order to thrive as First Nations people, we need to not feud with one another; we need to work together in order to have a strong future for generations to come. To me, that's the main story behind all of this ... Being able to stand together, rather than against one another."

It's this partnership between the Squamish and Lil'wat Nations, forged in the ancient village of Spo7ez, that is flourishing once again, stronger than ever, particularly over the course of this past decade. As the exquisite, multimillion-dollar Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre (SLCC), located on shared traditional territory in the Upper Village, celebrates its 10th anniversary this summer, the story of Spo7ez, and its enduring message, rings truer than ever. The centre is the physical reminder of that ancient village and connection, cementing a significant place for First Nations in Whistler and their role in the future.

Rising from the rubble

It's June 21, 2018. A small crowd gathers at the SLCC—tourists, local First Nations and community leaders. They've come to mark National Indigenous Peoples Day, and celebrate through song and dance.

"Our celebration (at the SLCC) is a little bit small and that's only because we're running larger celebrations in the communities themselves," says Alison Pascale, curator at the SLCC as she quietly gets the cedar skirt and buckskin dress ready for the day's performance.

The SLCC is the showpiece monument, the face of the nations for the world to see. But the heart of these cultures remains in their close-knit communities, the Lil'wat living in Mount Currie to the north of Whistler, and Squamish Nation south in the municipality of Squamish and Vancouver.

National Indigenous Peoples Day is an important day for Lil'wat and Squamish, a day of embracing and celebrating culture, a day of reflection on the oft-fraught dyamic with government, and on this new age of reconciliation. The cultural centre itself is a symbol of the new relationship.

As the performance begins, the sun pours into the large longhouse windows of the SLCC, fashioned after the traditional home, or Tl'aktaxen Lam, of the Squamish Nation Coast Salish people. On either side of the longhouse sit two round S7istken, or pit houses, of the Interior Salish Lil'wat Nation.

Four members of the Performance Team take centrestage, the drum setting the beat, the age-old songs and traditional dances paying homage to the animals and stories of the past.

Aerienna Bruce is a 19-year-old from Squamish Nation. With cedar skirt swishing, arms spread out, she channels the eagle to the beat of the drummers.

"I've been dancing since I was seven years old," she says, adding that this is a very real sense of both nations working together in harmony in the form of song and dance, a critical piece of their culture.

Lil'wat Nation Chief Leonard Andrew remembers a time not that long ago when the nations had virtually no cultural presence in Whistler.

Whistler's resort community, which was increasingly pumping tourism and tax revenues into provincial coffers, had no official place or avenue to recognize the first peoples of the land, land that both nations claim as traditional territory.

Then, in 2001, the nations, who had in essence lived apart since Spo7ez, separated by geography and history, came together to sign a historic protocol agreement, pledging mutual cooperation and resolution of overlapping claims to traditional territories.

It was a new dawn in Whistler, an agreement that would pave the way for future business and cultural opportunities, and more, for the nations. It was a new dawn for the resort municipality and the province too, setting a precedent for First Nations negotiations and consultation that continues today.

It began with the cultural centre and the chance to showcase Squamish and Lil'wat to the world.

At the time, Squamish Nation hereditary Chief Gibby Jacob said: "We view this project as a beginning, for when you create one success, it leads to others."


Last year, the nations entered into a critical 60-year agreement with Whistler Blackcomb, the Resort Municipality of Whistler and the province, paving the way forward for future development in Whistler and providing security for the community and the partners.

The so-called Master Development Agreement details how the resort will be expanded and operated over the coming decades and how Whistler Blackcomb will be built out. It secures education, recreation and economic opportunities for the two nations.

Arguably, the SLCC was where it all began, the cornerstone for today's negotiations.

One success, leading to others

Looking back, Lil'wat Chief Andrew reflects: "It really helped to form a protocol. Instead of fighting over (the traditional territory), we thought: why don't we partner and make something happen here?"

In the end, the SLCC cost more than $30 million, built in the building boom leading up to the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games, held in Vancouver and Whistler.

At the time, Jacob said the nations had to "take a leap of faith" to borrow millions to complete the project.

Meanwhile, chiefs and council were hard at work negotiating around the Games. Through those negotiations, the two nations became the largest private landowner in Whistler after receiving 300 acres (121 hectares) of legacy lands in return for their support of the Games. (The resort municipality also received 300 acres of Crown land as part of its Olympic legacy.)

"We worked hard to become part of everything that's happening in Whistler," says Andrew, with a hint of pride in his voice.

One of the prime pieces of real estate in that 300-acre land transfer was 22 acres (nine ha.) in Alpine North, an area now known as Baxter Creek. That land came with development rights, the only piece of the 300 acres with significant development potential at the time.

Ultimately, the nations worked out a deal with the developers of Baxter Creek that cleared the multi-million-dollar debt on the SLCC and created opportunities for nation members, among other things.

Bikadi still remembers what she felt while visiting the centre the year it opened, when she was just 11 years old: "Whoa, this is ours?"

"That was so intense to me to know that the building and the beauty of it belonged to us," she says.

And she knew that one day, she was going to be a part of it.

"I fell in love with this building back in 2008 when I first saw it," she recalls. "I thought it was so luxurious in just the way that it looks. It's hard to find that in just your own reservation, because a lot of things are not very permanent, especially where I live in Mount Currie. For a long time, we had a bunch of trailers (pushed) together and called our 'community college.'"

The SLCC remains a tangible reminder of the importance of First Nations and their place in Whistler— and set the tone for the nations' role as a force to be reckoned with going forward.

'Making something happen'

With the mortgage debt clear, each nation now contributes $200,000 annually for the ongoing operating expenses of the centre. The ultimate goal is to see that annual contribution erased altogether, despite the fact that, typically, cultural centres like these across Canada are not self-sustaining.

Executive director Brady Smith is bullish on the goal, growing the annual operating budget from $1.5 mill to $2.8 million in the last three years.

Since opening a decade ago, approximately 410,000 people have come through the SLCC doors, including museum visitors, corporate groups, community businesses and private events. More than $3.5 million has come from cultural tour admissions, another $2.4 million in venue rentals and $3 million in in-house catering sales.

Behind the numbers is another story, arguably the most important story to come out of the SLCC: the Youth Ambassador Program. More than 500 indigenous youth have trained through this program in the last decade, going on work in the tourism industry and beyond in meaningful ways.

"On a daily basis I can see social change taking place," says Smith of the impact of the SLCC on the youth as well as on the people walking through the doors and learning about the Squamish and the Lil'wat.

"It's basically reconciliation in action."

Embracing culture

At the entrance to the SLCC, beyond the towering totem poles outside and the carved wooden front doors, hang beautiful woven blankets.

Squamish Nation Chief Janice George has been involved with the SLCC from Day 1 as co-curator and co-designer and the driving force behind the weaving project alongside husband Buddy Joseph. The blankets are hand-woven, each inch representing more than 1,000 hand movements.

"For our people, (weaving) is a strong part of our culture," says George.

The blankets and headbands are worn for protection from natural and spiritual elements and are an integral part of First Nations' ceremonies.

A critical part of the SLCC is not only teaching and passing on traditions like wool weaving, but also showing people that this is a "living culture."

"Our culture is not going anywhere," says George, adamantly. "I think we've survived because of that culture. It's our foundation.

"Now it's our turn to hang onto it for the next generation to come."

Ambassador Josh Anderson has also been working at the centre since the doors first opened.

"For the most part, I can't really call it work," he says smiling.

Among other things, he highlights the opportunity he had to create two CDs worth of traditional songs, songs that speak to places and animals and land.

It's the permanence of the songs that captures Anderson.

"They'll always be there, always be listened to, always be a part of us," he says.

"We're passing these important pieces on."

One of the things that always fascinates people, he adds, is the Number 7 used in the Squamish language alphabet, as in "Spo7ez." Anderson explains that the "7" represents a guttural stop or pause.

Both the Squamish and Ucwalmícwts language of the Lil'wat are in peril, with only a handful of fluent speakers left in each community.

"The number is only going to continue to grow," says Anderson confidently, pointing to the immersion programs at the Ts'zil Learning Centre in Mount Currie and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver that are aimed at preserving and spreading the Indigenous languages.

"We're really encouraging our children to speak the language."

Again, the SLCC plays its role, creating pride in culture, and an ongoing interest in learning more about it and sharing it with the world.

Building new traditions

And so work continues looking backwards and forwards.

For the past year, Bikadi has been working on the Spo7ez Workhouse, showcasing the "living cultures" of regalia making. "The project is set to create new regalia for the Culture Performance Team in part for the new theatrical production, called The Story of Spo7ez."

In the Nations, the regalia is considered formal wear, much like a modern-day ball gown or tuxedo, and is an integral part of major ceremonies and celebrations.

"My job is to recreate what our people might have looked like in the shared village that was located here in Whistler," Bikadi says.

It's a hybrid of both Nations' styles. The base of the garment will be deer or elk hide. Different types of artwork will be added on top—seashell adornments from the Squamish Nation, as well as cedar paddles.

"It's very significant to their identity as sea-going people," she adds. "You'll find all different sorts of shapes and sizes of those cedar paddles. Personally, I like the dramatic effect that it gives when you have an abundance of them on your garment, 'cause when you move around they clack against one another and I really like that about them."

From the Lil'wat Nation in the north, Bikadi will be adding deer antler fastening and horse-hair adornments.

"That's one of the major ways that we used to travel," she says. "Even to date we still use horses for travel. It's a big part of our culture."

The last addition to the regalia is an ermine pelt that looks like white mink. The ermine represents wealth and royalty. The animals are hard to catch and don't offer much sustenance, considered a luxury item.

Bikadi began working at the centre almost as soon as she was able to, coming up through the highly successful Youth Ambassador program. She started as a tour guide, manned the till in the gift shop and worked in the catering department. Now she is dedicated in this new role of regalia making.

"I'm very proud to work here," she says.

Councillor Carla George with Squamish Nation shares this message at the ten-year mark: "By sharing where we are from and where we are going, our visitors walk away with an informed opinion, instead of a biased one ... We are in the era of reconciliation, and the SLCC provides many opportunities to act on this vital process".

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