First Nations protest lingers against proposed Melvin Creek ski resort
Hubert Jim has occupied an unusual home for the last decade. Originally a resident of the Lil’wat First Nation community of Mount Currie, Jim used to work as a cook in restaurant kitchens in the Whistler area. Over 12 years ago, community opposition to a proposed ski resort prompted him to set up camp at Melvin Creek, or what is referred to by the St’át’imc people as Sutikalh.
What he initially expected to be a stay of a few days has turned into a much more permanent residence at the tranquil site in the Cayoosh mountain range, just off Highway 99 between Pemberton and Lillooet. While he was at one point accompanied by many other protesters, the man known as Hubie now spends most of his time at the Sutikalh camp with one friend and fellow protester and a couple of dogs.
Above Jim’s camp flutters a red Mohawk warrior flag, and his dark green jacket sports sewn-on badges from indigenous groups based in locations as far away as Quebec and Argentina that have visited the site over the years.
Jim says that, when he initially set up camp in May 2000, it was at the request of “the grandmothers”, older women known as the teachers in the Lil’wat community. He sees his purpose as protecting the natural habitat.
“You can go in the bush and still find 25 types of edible berries,” Jim told the Georgia Straight on a recent Saturday afternoon at the site. “All the medicines you need are still here.”
The camp is a lingering sign of protest from the St’át’imc against the major ski resort envisioned by proponents Al Raine and Nancy Greene Raine—now the mayor of the Sun Peaks Mountain Resort Municipality and a Conservative senator, respectively.
As proposed, the four-season Cayoosh resort would have 14 ski lifts and a capacity to host over 14,000 people a day in the Melvin Creek Valley.
While the environmental-assessment certificate issued for the project in 2000 is still valid, no construction work on the site has been permitted since the expiry of the certificate was suspended. Issued through an order in council in 2005, the suspension was made to allow time for the Crown to conduct additional consultations with First Nations.
Information provided by the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office indicates that consultations are on hold and no timeline has been set for launching consultations on the proponents’ request for an extension of the certificate.
“The province has said to me, ‘You know, we’re working on it,’ and I have not heard very much since,” Al Raine told the Straight by phone. “I’m not sure exactly where it goes,” he added. “If First Nations are interested, I’m happy to say, ‘Hey, here’s where I think the opportunities are.’ ”
But Garry John, elected chief of the Seton Lake Indian Band and chair of the St’át’imc Chiefs Council, said the 11 St’át’imc communities in the region, including Mount Currie and Lillooet, made it clear when the proposal came forward that they were opposed to the project.
“We view Melvin Creek as an area holding far too much heritage and resource value in the sense of historical value, cultural value, spiritual value for our people,” he said in a phone interview.
“There’s all kinds of indicator species up there, the main one being the grizzly bear, and mountain goat, that need that habitat in its present form in order to survive.”
Raine said he met with the St’át’imc chiefs and made it “absolutely clear to them all” that without their support, the proponents wouldn’t be proceeding with the project.
“Twenty-five years ago, I was keenly interested,” he explained. “I still think it represents probably from a climate point of view—you know, for weather, snow quality, terrain potential—probably the best opportunity in the province. Obviously I wouldn’t have spent money if I didn’t think that. And that’s probably still true today, but, you know, do I want to beat my head against the wall, do I want to fight the First Nations? Absolutely not.”
In the meantime, Jim plans to stay on at the camp. The former Mount Currie resident hasn’t been dissuaded by some of the challenges, including winter isolation and some recent incidents in which he says he was assaulted by people entering the camp.
“The guys that want the ski resort come in here when they’re all drunk and start fights,” Jim claimed. “I’m still fighting a lot."
Raine believes the long-term existence of the camp is due to issues beyond the project itself.
“I think the protest has little to do with the project and more to do with the whole politics and the issues around land claims and rights,” Raine argued.
Jim does indicate that he sees his presence at Sutikalh, which translates roughly as “home of the winter spirit”, as part of efforts to protect the traditional land of the St’át’imc people.
“Without our territory and our…St’át’imc language, without that, we’re nothing,” Jim said.
Chief John predicted that Jim will stay at the camp “until he takes his last breath”.
“Or he’s going to have to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he doesn’t have to worry about the place anymore,” John said.