The Supreme Court has reserved a judgement in a landmark case that has pitted Ktunaxa tribe against a ski resort in British Columbia. The case’s outcome will determine the rights of First Nation people in Canada, lawyers say.
For more than two decades, the Canadian First Nation of Ktunaxa has fought against a plan to construct a ski resort in westernmost province of British Columbia.
The Ktunaxa say that skiers and snow boarders will drive away the sacred ‘Grizzly Bear Spirit’ that is central to their religious beliefs.
The $1 billion project, proposed by the company Glacier Resorts, will be located in the Upper Jumbo Valley in the Purcell Mountains, 55 kilometres west of holiday-town of Invermere.
The Ktunaxa protest — the First Nation people are also referred to as Kootenai or Kootenay — against the resort has evolved into a mass movement over the years, drawing in support from various religious groups including the Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association (CMLA) and the Christian Legal Fellowship.
The Ktunaxa says the Jumbo Glacier Resort will be a violation of their religious rights as guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, an important part of the constitution.
But up till now, they have had a hard time convincing courts to stop project.
Why is the Supreme Court decision significant?
The Ktunaxa’s claim that development of a resort violates its religious freedom was rejected by British Columbia’s highest court and the provincial court of appeals.
The case then went before the Canada’s Supreme Court in December 2016, which for the first time would rule on indigenous people’s rights on basis of their religious beliefs.
The Supreme Court has reserved its judgement — but as of yet, has not released it to the public. It is not yet clear which date the decision will be announced.
Nader Hasan, one of the lawyers who represented the natives before the Supreme Court, said that the case became a matter of concern for various religious groups because it relates to the freedom to practise one’s faith.
“At end of the day, the principles that are articulated by the Supreme Court are applied to all groups. That’s why each and every freedom of religious case is of interest to every minority in Canada,” said Hasan who is also a member of the CMLA.
The case surfaced at a time when a protest movement led by a native tribe in neighbouring United States against a Dakota oil pipeline become a major political crisis.
“This case is very much about the soul of Canada,” Hasan said.
“If indigenous people start to believe that their rights are not being taken seriously, then it could lead to a greater significant political standoff — as you saw in North Dakota,” he said referring to the Dakota pipeline protest.
What could be the implications of the judgement?
The case might set a precedent for other countries where indigenous people are fighting to protect their sacred sites.
Last year, New Zealand recognised a national park — Te Urewera — as a corporate person in a bid to pacify local Maori people.
Locals there say the forest is important to their culture and consider it as a living ancestor. That was a landmark move to safeguard indigenous cultural values, and the case was used as an example for others to fight their corner.
The protest in the US against the pipeline that connects oil fields in North Dakota to refineries in Illinois might have ended, but the fight to recognise the right of First Nation peoples continues.
A positive judgement by the Supreme Court of Canada could become a reference point for the protestors in the US.
But some groups like the British Columbia Chamber of Commerce have warned that a judgement in favour of Ktunaxa could set off an avalanche of similar cases. There are hundreds of scared sites in Canada.
Could the outcome of this case alter the liberal outlook of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau?
Nader Hasan believes so.
“The warm and fuzzy things that our leader says on the international stage — and the policies pursued at home are in complete contrast,” he said.
Canada has dark history when it comes to indigenous people, Hasan said. “It started with a genocide and then centuries of cultural genocide.”
Most of the land in British Columbia was never ceded to the government by native Canadians and it remains a subject of dispute, he said.
“It is only in last few years that in Canada there has been eagerness to make amends to past historical wrongs,” Hasan said. “That sheds a light on why these cases are so important.”