Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

Ski resorts threatened by unresolved native land claims

The tale of two ski resorts, roadblocks, protests and camouflage battle fatigues intertwines with B.C.’s sad history of treaty negotiations Two B.C.

The tale of two ski resorts, roadblocks, protests and camouflage battle fatigues intertwines with B.C.’s sad history of treaty negotiations

Two B.C. ski resorts have been hogging the headlines in Vancouver’s daily newspapers and the airwaves of the province’s suppertime newscasts lately despite the fact that the stories have nothing to do with skiing.

Mounties bust blockade. Land claims showdown looming at ski resort. Native activists setting up protest camps. Blockade greets proposed ski resort. Natives occupy resort to protest land use.

The overblown media coverage is enough to make the average person think that the province is under siege. But that’s what both sides want in this unfortunate story of politics and perception.

The saga’s roots can be traced back to events that took place more than a decade ago.

In the summer of 1990, 15 separate native roadblocks – including ones in Agassiz, Fountain, North Vancouver, Oliver, Pavilion, Pemberton and Vernon – were strung up across the province’s roadways.

That was the same summer a dispute over a golf course near Oka, Que., got a little out of hand and the Canadian military came for a visit.

In the summer of 1995, roadblocks were strung up on the Douglas Lake Road near Merritt and the Adams Lake Road near Chase.

That was the same summer a misunderstanding over a piece of ranching land on Gustafsen Lake near 100 Mile House got a little out of hand and the RCMP were called in.

Last summer, natives tussled with federal department of fisheries officers on the Fraser River near Chilliwack and on the Atlantic Ocean near Burnt Church, N.B.

But perhaps the most thought-provoking dispute was an ongoing roadblock near Penticton that lasted through the late 1980s and into the early ’90s.

The Penticton Indian Band halted expansion at Apex Mountain by blockading the ski hill’s main access road, which ran through the band’s reserve. The ensuing media coverage drove off potential international investors until the ski area went bankrupt.

Apex Mountain Resort was eventually bailed out by the provincial government and is now locally owned.

Now, in the summer of 2001, First Nation peoples have set up roadblocks and protest camps at Melvin Creek – site of the proposed Cayoosh ski resort – on the Duffey Lake Road and at Sun Peaks Resort near Kamloops.

At Melvin Creek, the St’at’imc First Nation – made up of 11 bands from the Lillooet-Pemberton area – is opposed to the controversial $500-million Cayoosh resort development for a variety of reasons, including environmental and economic concerns.

Eighty-three per cent of the nearby Mount Currie Indian Band voted against the development last October.

The St’at’imc insist the area has been used for traditional hunting, gathering and cultural practices since the beginning of time. It is also claimed to be home to Sutikah, the winter spirit.

The 1911 Declaration of the Lillooet Tribe, signed by all the St’at’imc chiefs, states that they have never ceded, surrendered or released their lands.

(Only three St’at’imc bands – Samahquam, Skatin and X’a’xtsa, collectively called the In-SHUCK-ch – are currently involved in treaty negotiations with the provincial government.)

Environmental and outdoor recreation groups have also expressed concern about development in the Cayoosh Range of the Coast Mountains.

Natives set up the a roadblock at Melvin Creek last August after the provincial government gave the proposed resort environmental approval – after nearly a decade of studies. A small protest camp has remained at the site ever since.

There was another roadblock on the morning of June 16 this year at the same location. A group of about 20 natives set up the three-hour blockade for informational purposes. Pemberton RCMP attended the blockade and did not report any confrontations.

But at 5 a.m. on July 5, more than 40 RCMP constables, members of two emergency response teams, three dog units and a helicopter from detachments in Kamloops and Kelowna arrested seven people on the Duffey Lake Road.

Traffic on Highway 99 between Pemberton and Lillooet, which mainly consisted of logging trucks, was being blocked with a spiked wooden barrier.

According to the RCMP report, there were six natives (four males, two females) and one Caucasian male, all between the ages of 19 and 35, arrested that morning.

None of the protestors were members of the St’at’imc First Nation; two of the people were identified as being from Vancouver and Victoria, while the other five were listed as having no fixed address.

The Cayoosh ski resort is being developed by Al Raine and his wife, Olympic gold medallist skier Nancy Greene Raine. The couple helped build Whistler during the 1970s and ’80s and currently own a hotel at Sun Peaks and are involved in the resort association there.

Raine says the issue is out of his hands.

"My frustration is that it’s a land-claims issue," he told Pique Newsmagazine in an interview. "This is not the way to solve the problem."

At Sun Peaks, the Neskonlith and Adams Lake Indian bands – members of the eight band Shuswap, or Secwepewc, First Nation – are opposed to the $70-million expansion of the ski resort that includes a 230-room hotel and conference centre, a townhome complex, an 18-hole golf course, the addition of two chairlifts and the development of ski terrain on a new mountain.

The Secwepewc claim the area is used for traditional hunting, gathering and spiritual practices for thousands of years and call the region encompassing the resort Skwelkwek’welt, which means high alpine mountains.

Further complicating the matter is that the Secwepewc insist Mounts Todd, Cahilty and Morrisey, and the McGillvary watershed, are part of a reserve marked out by B.C.’s colonial governor in 1862. None of the Shuswap’s eight bands are involved in treaty negotiations.

The Secwepewc set up a protest camp at Sun Peaks last fall and have been there ever since.

Members of the camouflage-wearing Native Youth Movement (also known as the West Coast Warrior Society) are leading demonstrations at the resort.

One newspaper report even places a native called Wolverine, a key figure involved in the Gustafsen Lake standoff, at the Sun Peaks camp.

"One of the problems at Cayoosh and Sun Peaks is attaching individual’s actions to groups," says B.C. Attorney-General Geoff Plant. "It really complicates things.

"But people who wear camouflage and balaclavas are hooligans."

The confrontational group also occupied the B.C. Assets and Lands Corp. office in Kamloops in February and led a highly publicized protest during a MuchMusic festival this past spring.

(According to a CBC news report in May, members of the Native Youth Movement were heading to Melvin Creek as well.)

Things became more interesting in June, when natives evicted a tour operator and occupied a cabin belonging to Sun Peaks Resort. Later in the month, a violent scuffle broke out between natives and a non-native man and another cabin built by natives was mysteriously torched.

Kamloops RCMP are investigating the incidents and Sun Peaks management has applied for a court order to remove the natives. Sun Peaks Resort is owned by the Japan-based Nippon Cable Co. Ltd.

The native’s approach at Sun Peaks have Raine incensed.

"If any non-native group went into an Aboriginal community and did those things, it would be front page news," he says. "Their tactics have been absolute intimidation.

"There needs to be one law for all of B.C. It has nothing to do with being an Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal."

It seems that St’at’imc Chief Gary John and Secwepewc Chief Arthur Manuel are taking a page out of Penticton Indian Band Chief Stewart Phillip’s playbook – kill the development and expansion proposals by scaring away investors.

Both John and Manuel have held demonstrations outside the Canadian Venture Exchange building in downtown Vancouver on separate occasions. Even more interesting is that John and Manuel travelled to an international tourism conference in Berlin, Germany, together in January to lobby their respective causes.

"Their strategy is one of hurting third-party businesses and the B.C. economy to get their land-claim issues resolved," says Raine. "The clear objective is to bring businesses to their knees because they’re not even part of the treaty negotiations."

The attorney-general cautiously agrees with Raine’s assessment.

"We’re urging the chiefs to open the lines of communication so we can reach a resolution before things get out of hand," Plant told Pique Newsmagazine earlier this week in an exclusive interview. "I have been monitoring things very carefully and getting regular reports from the RCMP. I don’t want to see another Gustafsen Lake."

But not all Secwepewc people agree with stopping development. Some want to use the resorts as a way to kick-start their reserve economies. For example, Sun Peaks has worked with the Little Adams and Kamloops bands to include local native people in the resort’s plans.

Sun Peaks and the Little Adams Indian Band recently signed a $5-million agreement to build an employee housing complex at the resort. The Little Adams band also owns the Quaaout Lodge Resort near Chase.

The Kamloops Indian Band has a good relationship with Sun Peaks and does not want to get involved in the land-claim dispute at the resort. The Kamloops band leases part of its lands to local businesses, which brings in about $1.5 million annually.

Al Raine has offered a similar deal to the St’at’imc bands. Lease payments would total in the hundreds of thousands of dollars if the natives were to give Cayoosh resort the go-ahead. He’s also offered to help First Nations establish businesses at the proposed resort.

"Tourism is an opportunity for economic diversification," he says, noting that the industry is slowly, but surely, gaining ground on forestry, mining and oil and gas in economic importance.

Besides the Raines, the conflicts have other connections to Whistler as well. Intrawest Corp. – owner of Whistler-Blackcomb – developed three real-estate projects at Sun Peaks in the mid-1990s, while Nippon Cable currently owns 23 per cent of both Whistler and Blackcomb mountains.

And to complicate the political matters of the land-claims issue, newly elected B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell and his Liberal government have promised to hold a province-wide referendum on treaty negotiations, which could cause further tension. The province’s native peoples have overlapping claims to all of B.C.

"The real issue is their fight with the federal and provincial governments," Raine says. "The question of land ownership is a passionate issue and it’s one that has been ignored for over 100 years.

"It’s an absolute necessity to get it resolved. The sooner, the better."

Plant, however, says that roadblocks and protests are not the proper way to get land claims done.

"We do not recognize this as a lawful way to take back land," he says. "It’s a pretty counter-intuitive strategy."

Plant is also the minister responsible for treat negotiations.

"We’re going back to the bargaining table with the bands in the treaty process," he says, "and we will be going ahead with the referendum."

But the future of ski resorts at Cayoosh and Sun Peaks, and any other development in the province of B.C., depends on one thing: First Nations support.

"Without it," says Raine, "we’re toast."