The Ktunaxa Nation will have their day in the Supreme Court of Canada with a case that has the potential to set a precedent for worldwide implications for indigenous peoples.
Canada’s top authority announced they will hear the Ktunaxa’s appeal of a decision by the B.C. government that approved a Master Development Agreement for the proposed Jumbo glacier resort. The crux of the dispute is that the Ktunaxa Nation believes the B.C. government’s approval of the development plan violated their Charter right to freedom of religion, as the area around the proposed resort—known as Qat’muk—has significant spiritual meaning to local First Nations groups.
The United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, made by the international organization in 2007, sets out the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples, as well as their rights to culture, identity, language, employment, health, education and other issues. Though not legally binding, the declaration was adopted with support from 144 countries, while Canada and three other nations conspicuously voted against the measure.
The result of the Supreme Court’s decision, whether in favour or against the Ktunaxa Nation, has the potential to be a precedent-setting ruling in regards to indigenous peoples’ rights to freedom of religion worldwide, said Ktunaxa Nation chair Kathryn Teneese.
“There are articles in there [UN Declaration] that make reference to the rights of indigenous peoples to their spiritual beliefs and connections to places that have a relationship to their spiritual beliefs so we are hopeful that we can get a decision that will confirm what the United Nations declaration is already saying and also help us down the path of some of the calls to action that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified,” Teneese said.
“So we see this as something that is going to be educational in nature as well as setting the standard for how indigenous peoples’ spiritual beliefs are going to be taken into account as part of governments’ decision making processes.”
The dispute against the proposed Jumbo Glacier resort, which has been ongoing for nearly 30 years, has ground to a standstill as it is going through both the courts and through various government approval processes.
Currently, the proposed project is at a standstill because an Environmental Assessment Certificate expired after the Ministry of Environment determined that the project was not substantially started last summer.
In announcing her decision, Environment Minister Mary Polak determined that the physical activities undertaken on the various components did not meet the threshold of a substantially started project.
For the project to move forward, the proponents must start from scratch in the process to obtain a new EAC.
However, the legal dispute isn’t connected with the substantially started issue. The Ktunaxa took the case—a charter challenge that the province infringed on their religious rights—to B.C. Supreme court in April 2014, which ruled in favour of the province. An appeal of the same case was upheld by the courts in August 2015.
Now the Ktunaxa are bringing the issue to the Supreme Court of Canada, which chooses to hear cases based on an initial hearing.
“We are pleased with today’s ruling from the Supreme Court,” said Teneese. “Our right to freedom of religion should not be held in less regard than that of other Canadians. We are confident that the Supreme Court of Canada will agree that Ktunaxa beliefs and practices are vital to who we are and must be taken into account by statutory decision makers. This fight is not just for the Ktunaxa, but every Canadian who values the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as an integral part of this society.”
The Supreme Court of Canada indicated that no date has been set, but legal counsel for the Ktunaxa Nation roughly estimates that the case won’t be heard until January or February 2017.
According to the Ktunaxa, Qat’muk, the area around the proposed ski resort, is of significant spiritual importance, where the Grizzly Bear Spirit was born, goes to heal itself, and returns to the spirit world.
For Ktunaxa, Grizzly Bear Spirit is a unique and indispensable source of collective as well as individual guidance, strength, and protection, and a necessary part
of many Ktunaxa spiritual practices and beliefs. Qat’muk’s spiritual importance is deeply connected to its biological significance for living grizzly bears now and in the future.