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Premier bails on Sea to Sky gondola opening event

LNG demonstrators use the high-profile official opening to protest

The Sea to Sky Gondola is officially open but the grand-opening celebration was not without controversy.

The group My Sea to Sky chose to support the gondola and at the same time to voice disapproval for Woodfibre LNG's plans to build a liquefied natural gas export facility on Howe Sound during the opening.

More than 100 people gathered with protest signs at Shannon Falls on Friday, May 16 as provincial cabinet ministers, and other gondola project leaders, were arriving for an opening ceremony at the top of the gondola.

Premier Christy Clark was originally scheduled to attend, but she cancelled the night before and asked Naomi Yamamoto, the minister of state for tourism and small business, to speak on behalf of the provincial government and cut a ribbon to mark the grand opening of B.C.'s newest tourist draw.

The protesters stood beside Highway 99 through the morning with signs indicating support for tourism while making it clear they don't support Woodfibre LNG's plans.

Protest organizer Tracey Saxby said more than 120 participated in what she described as a peaceful demonstration.

While on the main Sea to Sky Gondola deck, 885 metres above Howe Sound with a clear view of the former pulp mill site, Yamamoto said tourism and industry can co-exist.

"I don't think we should be making choices between one sector or industry and another," said Yamamoto. "I think we can do both of them successfully."

West Vancouver–Sea to Sky MLA Jordan Sturdy agreed with her.

"I don't think we see an either-or situation," he said atop the viewing platform at the gondola's top station. "I think these things can be compatible — be it forestry, mining, energy. It is a resource-based province and tourism is another resource. We need to have it all work together."

Saxby disagreed and argued the industries won't work well together.

"We're still living under the stigma that Squamish is an industrial town and we need to shake that off," said Saxby. "I'm really concerned that if we have Woodfibre LNG just across the water, so visible from the highway, that we're never going to be able to shake off that stigma."

She said some heavy industry is appropriate for Squamish, but not industries involved in resource-extraction.

"If anybody is ever looking at setting up a project I would refer you to the Sea to Sky Gondola team for how to do that right," said Squamish Mayor Rob Kirkham to a crowd of more than 150 people gathered for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

He said the new gondola truly makes Squamish a tourism destination on its own — independent of Vancouver and Whistler.

"This is just an outstanding addition to our community and to the tourism attractions and businesses we have in town," Kirkham said. "I think everybody is going to benefit from this."

The gathering of dignitaries at the event included the minister of forests, lands and natural resource operations, Steve Thomson, along with MLAs Scott Hamilton, Jane Thornwaite, Mike Bernier and Gordon Hogg. Former West Vancouver-Sea to Sky MLA Joan McIntyre was also on hand for the official opening along with Whistler's Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden.