Landmark or status quo? Supreme Court of Canada deems no place is sacred

Just last week we were informed by the media that the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on a case involving the proposed Jumbo Glacier Ski Resort in Jumbo valley, an area the Ktunaxa Nation calls Qat’muk, located in the heart of the Purcell Mountains in south-eastern British Columbia.

The media didn’t only inform, they fell over one another with wild, almost victorious claims that the ‘Court has given the Green light to ski resort’, ‘Supreme Court approves B.C ski resort…’, when in fact the Court did nothing of the sort, it simply reviewed a case concerning the right to freedom of religion filed by the Ktunaxa First Nation.

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What the ruling exposed was the limited scope of religious freedom in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms for protection of sacred sites. It shows that the Charter is crafted on European constructs of religion resulting in an exclusion of what is important in Indigenous beliefs. Most Indigenous spiritual traditions see the natural world being intertwined with the spiritual one, and sacred sites are at the crux of that connection.

In its ruling the Supreme Court concluded:

‘The state’s duty under s. 2 (a) is not to protect the object of beliefs or the spiritual focal point of worship, such as Grizzly Bear Spirit. Rather, the state’s duty is to protect everyone’s freedom to hold such beliefs and to manifest them in worship and practice or by teaching and dissemination.’

 So according to the Court that means that if you hold a belief, or have the spiritual focus that involves something that is a physical thing or a natural area, you’re out of luck, there is no such thing as a “protected” sacred site in the view of Canada’s courts.

The media’s exuberance was curious though, or maybe not so much. A CBC online story stated that, “the landmark decision paves the way for development….” But I question what it was about this decision that was in any way new and counts as a landmark. Is it a landmark for colonialism? I thought Canada was on a path to reconciliation?

In the midst of considering this news, I headed to the BICS gym to hear Wade Davis talk about ancient cultures around the world and why they matter. The so-called landmark decision on Qat’muk, seems to fit neatly with Davis’s stories about Europeans failing to recognize the value of world views other than their own. This failure has, time and time again, led to the de-humanization of non-Europeans and the willful destruction of cultures.

Davis sees culture as, “by definition a unique answer to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive?” Our species becomes poorer as the answers to this question diminish. The answers to that question also impact the world around us - as Davis pointed out, the aboriginal world view that sees the role of humanity being to tend to the world and keep it as close to it was in the beginning as possible would never have put a human being on the moon - but it would have never brought us to this dangerous point of ecological catastrophe either.

The Ktunaxa First Nation believe that the spirit of the Grizzly Bear will disappear from  Qat’muk if the mountain is developed. This is not a stretch of the imagination: developing the area equals Bye Bye to the Grizzly Bears in the valley, taking with them the Spirit of their Presence.

It is absolutely sad to see the Court using language like ‘Crown land’, when in B.C. every nook and cranny remains un-ceded Indigenous territory.

The only landmark in the decision was that the protection of Colonial interests are not only written into many of Canada’s older laws and regulations, but as we have found last week, also into a relatively recent piece of legislation being the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

It needs to be considered that the same principle can be applied to colonial interests as well. In dismissing the idea of a “sacred site,” doesn’t that mean much loved and cherished places, such as Bowen Island’s cenotaph, are stripped of their value as well?

I hope we all understand the wonderful option the Indigenous people have offered to the colonizers: you can stay as long as you respect the treaties. The Supreme Court didn’t deliver on this chance because it couldn’t due to this limitation in the Charter. It is now up to us to pressure our Government to make right what is wrong. I am positive we can! 


Anton van Walraven was transplanted to Bowen Island from the Netherlands too late in life to be healthy. He still dearly misses the bicycle he left behind.

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