First Nations cultural centre centre a step closer 

Five acres near Upper Village being rezoned by municipality

Council took the first steps to rezoning a five-acre parcel of environmentally sensitive crown land Monday night, setting the stage for a First Nations Cultural Centre in Whistler.

The $13 million project, which should break ground next spring, is the embodiment of a 2001 agreement signed between Whistler’s two neighbouring First Nations.

That Nation-to-Nation protocol, the first of its kind in Canada, signalled the start of a relationship between Squamish and Lil’wat Nations designed to foster economic and cultural activities of common interest.

The new centre will highlight that new relationship.

"It’s basically a celebration of both nations getting together," said architect Alfred Waugh, founder of Waugh + Busby Architects, the company designing the centre.

As well, the centre represents the growing positive relationship among First Nations and the resort.

On Monday council gave first and second reading to the land use and zoning bylaws to allow the First Nations cultural centre on a sensitive village site.

The five-acre forested area, opposite the Fairmont Chateau Whistler on the corner of Blackcomb Way and the eastern end of Lorimer Road, was slated at one time for a townhouse development.

"Kudos to previous councils for not letting that happen," said Bob MacPherson, the RMOW interim general manager of planning and development in his presentation to council.

Instead, the conceptual plans call for about 45,000 square feet of building on the site. The first phase will be roughly 25,000 square feet with the remaining square footage to be built during phase two.

The main cultural centre building will have two distinct forms.

One section will look like a "Big House," the traditional living space of the Coast-Salish people. The other section will take the form of an "ishkin" or pit house, in recognition of the traditions of the Lil’wat people.

In addition there will be forest trails leading to two separate buildings within the forest. These will be anthropologically correct forms of the "Big House" and "ishkin" so visitors can get a true traditional experience in the forest.

"I think none of us want to lose the sense of that being in a forest," said Councillor Ken Melamed who was acting mayor at the meeting.

Inside the main centre there will be a high-tech theatre to hold about 80 people, which will show 20-minute presentations about the history of the neighbouring First Nations. The theatre might also present shows about other Aboriginal cultures around the world.

There will also be an upper hall with exhibit space, a gift shop and a cafe selling traditional foods.

Melamed said council should not simply assume that the retail and restaurant component of the centre will reflect the First Nations culture. He expressed concern that one day there could be a McDonald’s and a Disney store there.

"Believe me, we have been surprised in the past because we have made assumptions that things will be carried on in perpetuity," he said.

On the top floor of the centre there will also be space for 11 employee-housing units. During the peak season it is expected to employee about 25 to 30 members of the First Nations communities. The centre will also create other spin off jobs in the resort.

"It adds to the economy of Whistler," said Waugh.

"It enriches the cultural mix of what Whistler has to offer for tourism."

Another positive aspect of the project is that it recognizes the fourth step of the Natural Step framework, the high-level policy guide adopted by the municipality in December 2000 to promote more sustainable practices.

That fourth step is to "meet humans needs in our society and worldwide."

The cultural centre adds to that objective by including the neighbouring First Nations communities in Whistler’s activity and economy.

Following another increasingly common Whistler building principle, the Squamish and Lil’wat Nations are trying to incorporate some of the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building practices on the site. The LEED system rates buildings based on certain environmental criteria.

"We will be aiming for LEED silver. We’re looking at ideas pursuant of that," said Waugh, whose company is one of the leading "green" architectural firms in Canada.

The actual construction of the buildings should take between 14 and 16 months, said Waugh. When the entire time spent on the project is tallied, Waugh said it will be about 27 months starting from the initial design stage to completion.

There is an extensive consultation process with the two Nations, which involves the elders, the chiefs and other community members.

"It needs to be presented by the Aboriginal people themselves because they are the rightful custodians of the land," said Waugh, who is also a status native.

"It’s a process of consensus."

Waugh says that process may be a little longer than usual.

"But you get a stronger product in the end."

To date the federal government has kicked in almost $200,000 to help fund various feasibility studies such as a topographical survey, a geo-technical study, an environmental assessment and an archeological assessment.

But the First Nations themselves have to raise between $5 million and $6 million and come up with the equity for the project.

Any money that the centre makes will go back into the First Nations communities.

Although the centre will be an important asset for Vancouver’s 2010 Olympic Bid, Waugh said this centre was in the works even before Whistler jumped on the Olympic radar screen.

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