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Opinion: Why Cayoosh and Jumbo Glacier ski resorts failed

Building strong relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, especially in the tourism sector, is crucial to the success of both.
The Jumbo Glacier Resort was originally designed to have 23 lifts, a 3000-metre-high gondola and 5,000 beds

On June 16, Lil’wat Nation’s Skalúlmecw Chief Dean Nelson declined to participate in the ceremonial re-signing of the 2020 Framework Agreement between the Lil’wat and Squamish Nations, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW), the Province of British Columbia and Whistler Blackcomb.

Nelson said he didn’t sign the document because he felt the relationship between the parties involved wasn’t where it should be, and the lines of communication need to be opened further.

“We’re talking about relationships and understanding, but up to this point, we haven’t had that relationship … I’ve never really known who I’m talking with, whether it’s the governments or neighbours,” Nelson said.

Recently, we witnessed a clear example of a similar relationship failing during the push for a new 2030 Winter Olympics bid. For several months, the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish, and Lil’wat Nations collaborated with the Canadian Olympic Committee to bring the games back to B.C.

Initially, there was significant support for the bid. Sun Peaks Mountain Resort Municipality and the RMOW endorsed it unanimously, and the City of Vancouver followed suit shortly after. However, when the bid reached the province’s desk, it was abruptly shut down, reportedly without any prior notice to the Nations involved.

Following the province’s announcement, Squamish Nation Councillor Sxwíxwtn Wilson Williams said, “True reconciliation was never acted upon,” and the Nations “suffocated from a true colonial process.”

A lack of clear communication between First Nations and government is a running theme in modern B.C. and Canada. Over the last few decades, the relationship between both parties has experienced some notable setbacks, particularly regarding the expansion of the ski industry, resulting in a few proposed ski resorts causing deep division among Indigenous communities throughout the province.

In the 1990s, shortly after the provincial government controversially upgraded the Duffey Lake Road to a two-lane highway, a proposal surfaced to build a $500-million ski resort northeast of Pemberton in the Melvin Creek Valley in the Cayoosh Mountain Range.

In 1991, Al and Nancy Greene Raine, through their company NGR Resort Consultants, led the effort to create the Cayoosh Mountain Resort with an upper and lower village, 14 lifts, a conference centre, shops, and lodging for up to 14,000 overnight guests.

Due in part to poor communication and relationship-building between the proponents, the provincial government, and the surrounding St’at’imc First Nations, who claimed the area as part of their traditional territory, the project became mired in controversy for more than a decade, resulting in road blockades, the creation of the (ongoing) Sutikalh land defender camp, and protests, before finally being shelved in 2005.

Another more recent example is the Jumbo Glacier Ski Resort in the Kootenays, about 53 kilometres east of Invermere. The $450-million proposed ski area would have had close to 5,500 bed units and 23 lifts capable of accommodating 2,700 daily skiers over 60 square kilometres.

Negotiations fell through between the backers and the local Ktunaxa Nation regarding the resort project. The Ktunaxa Nation holds that the area is part of its traditional territory, and opposed the project on cultural grounds, since the land is sacred to its community.

The provincial and regional governments proceeded with the development despite opposition from the Nation, and even though no residents officially lived there, they created a new mountain resort municipality from scratch with an appointed mayor and two councillors to speed along the creation of the resort.

After several years, numerous protests and a Supreme Court challenge, the project ended up being delayed and eventually sent back to review by the provincial government. It was officially put on ice in 2020, with the land turned into an Indigenous Conservation Area.

One of the lessons we can learn from the failure of Cayoosh and Jumbo resorts is that if you want to succeed and build a strong tourism economy, you need strong relationships with Indigenous communities, proper and meaningful consultation, and partnerships that give everyone a fair share of the economic pie.

Whistler is of course no stranger to that process, either. Its 2013 Official Community Plan was quashed by a Supreme Court judge, who deemed the RMOW did not adequately consult local First Nations prior to its approval by the province. That decision set the municipality’s OCP back nearly a decade (a reworked version was finally adopted in 2020).

One of the reasons to be optimistic about the planned Valemount Glacier Ski Resort is that, throughout the process, the proponents worked with the local Simpcw First Nation and gained its support for the project. While several challenges remain, having the support of the local Nation makes a big difference, and shows that substantial projects can move ahead if done right.

Although there has been progress in building stronger relationships, consultation and collaboration in the tourism industry over the last few decades, more work is required as the industry continues to grow and develop in the province.

Building strong relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, especially in the tourism sector, is crucial to the success of both.

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