Why Destroy First Nations Sacred Sites?

Qat’muk, the place where the grizzlies dance.  When I first heard of the Ktunaxa’s fight for their right to preserve a sacred/power site in their territory, I envisioned powerful and amazing grizzly bears dancing, gathering, in one place and it had wonderful imagery for me.  I felt the strength of need to protect such an important place for the Ktunaxa people.  The necessity to support this initiative was strengthened further when you read the Ktunaxa declaration.

We, the Ktunaxa, have lived in our territory since time immemorial and have a deep spiritual connection to the animal world and, in particular, to the grizzly bear. Qat’muk is a very special place where Kⱡawⱡa Tukⱡuⱡakʔis, the Grizzly Bear Spirit, was born, goes to heal itself, and returns to the spirit world. The Grizzly Bear Spirit is an important source of guidance, strength, protection and spirituality for the Ktunaxa. Qat’muk’s importance for the Grizzly Bear Spirit is inextricably interlinked with its importance for living grizzly bears now and in the future. The Ktunaxa have a stewardship obligation and duty to the Grizzly Bear Spirit and Qat’muk.”

So when there was a proposed development of large scale ski development in the heart of the Qat’mak valley (Jumbo Valley), the Ktunaxa were immediately opposed.

Kathryn Teneese, Ktunaxa Nation Chair said, “The Ktunaxa have been opposed to this development for over 20 years. We have tried to explain to provincial ministers and other government representatives that Qat’muk is of profound spiritual and cultural importance to our nation and that the resort will desecrate the area and undermine beliefs and practices at the core of Ktunaxa culture and identity.”

For over 20 years, the Ktunaxa have been trying to get the BC Government, the developer and the courts to understand the immense significance of Qat’muk to them without success. Sad reflection on what it takes to get a First Nations sacred site protected. 

It has been immensely frustrating to the Ktuxana trying to convey to non-indigenous peoples what this spirituality means to the Ktunaxa people.  Not just the spirituality, but the intricate connection their people have to the land and animal spirits. Most non-indigenous peoples have no way to understand this as they don’t have the same experience and values.  To the Government, they are looking at revenue, jobs and checkmark on success.  They know they have a lot more political credibility with people and job creation than siding with the First Nations to protect land for grizzlies. 

This is an inherent problem with consultation, appearing before government agencies and regulatory bodies, they cannot understand what this area means to the Ktunaxa and so it is easy to dismiss it.

The BC Heritage Conservation Act does not allow for protecting spiritual sites with the exception of s. 4 agreements which to date, none exist.  There is a pilot project that is in the works but it is one negotiation with one Nation and the results won’t be known some years.

First Nations have been asking for a change in the Heritage Conservation Act for years to protect their spiritual/sacred burial sites to no avail.

The Coast Salish peoples had their sacred cave destroyed on Bear Mountain by the developers because the archaeologists/anthropologists could not find physical evidence that the cave was used for spiritual/sacred purposes.  Most sacred sites that are used by First Nations do not leave behind the physical evidence of use.  It is sacred and it is kept with no trace of use as that is the teachings. The destruction of this cave was beyond devastating to the Coast Salish peoples with nothing to replace that sacred spot.  Sacred sites do not show the evidence needed to be an “archaeology/heritage site” and are not protected by law.

The disturbing of burial sites has been an ongoing issue in BC.  Poets Cove, Departure bay, Grace Islet, Csesna?em(Marpole), and now Site C are some of the most troubling for BC and this issue goes unresolved.

The problem is that while the BC Heritage Conservation Act purpose is to “encourage and facilitate the protection and conservation of heritage property in BC” it allows for the alteration or destruction of anything that is protected in the Act.  This means that much of what First Nations consider important is destroyed without their permission for the sake of development and so called greater public good.

Therefore the Heritage Conservation Act has not helped the Ktunaxa in their role as protectors of Qat’muk

The BC Government has of course had the constitutional duty to consult with Ktunaxa.  Through all the consultations BC has not understood the importance of Qat’muk and the role of the grizzly in Ktunaxa lives and laws.  The most important thing to accomplish in any consultation is to meet the concerns of the First Nation and obviously in the case of Qat’muk and the Jumbo Glacier development they did not take this concern into consideration in any serious manner.

Not being consulted properly by the government left only the courts left to appeal to.  After many years of being in court, on December 1st , the Ktunaxa were in the Supreme Court of Canada, the highest court of the land to consider this issue.  They argued lack of consultation, Ktunaxa right to their spirituality and relationship to the land and animals and they also argued that they have the right under s. 2 of the Charter to freedom of religion something that has not been argued before. Can you imagine having to fight for over 20 years with governments, developers and in the courts.  After the courts, there is only being on the land to protect it. 

I listened to an interview on CBC radio with Kathryn Tennesse and she explained how hard it is to sit in court and hear all the lawyers talking about what is important to Ktunaxa when they don’t really understand the depth of how vital this is to Ktunaxa.  Indeed the Justices sitting and listening also do not have that understanding and they are the ones making the decision.  This is a huge problem of going to the courts to decide on something so important. 

Why is it First Nations People have to work so hard to protect what is important to them? Why is it only First Nations burial sites are subject to destruction for development when everyone else’s graves are intact?  Why is it First Nations have to prove their use of the land, their spirituality and connections to the lands, resources and the four legged and winged ones?

There is no equity or fairness in this world yet for indigenous peoples.  We have governments who think their need for revenues, jobs and prestige or fulfillingelection promises are more important than First Nations constitutional rights.

It is time that these systemic injustices are fixed.  It is time to respect and protect First Nations sacred/spiritual/burial sites. The government has always wanted to remove First Nations from the land through any means because it takes us away from our strength and spirituality, our stewardship and commitment to the land.  For many indigenous peoples they will never leave the land and will continually fight to protect what is important to them. It is time for all governments and developers to understand this and work with First Nations to protect what is important to them. They must place their developments in other areas or we will continually be at odds with one another and there will never be certainty and peace in indigenous lands. 

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 Will Qat'mak face the same fate as Coast Salish sacred cave on Bear Mountain? Ktukanax are doing everything they can to prevent this from happening.

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