Built on Tribal Land, Whistler Blackcomb Makes Effort to Reconcile with First Nations

A new landmark agreement between two First Nations, Whistler Blackcomb, and the Governments of B.C. and Whistler transforms reconciliation into action—and echoes throughout B.C. skiing.

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The giant stone monument on the summit of Whistler Mountain—often referred to as an Inukshu—appears in so many photographs it might as well have its own Instagram account. Shaped like a blocky human with arms stretched wide, its photogeneity is about more than its larger-than-life look or jaw-dropping backdrop.

Like the Eiffel Tower and Paris, the Inuit-style statue atop Whistler Peak has become an emblem of place, a visual trigger of associations. A snapshot of it is shorthand for Whistler’s rugged grandeur, its open-armed welcome of the world, its Olympic Winter Games history, and its indigenous past.

Except, there’s nothing past tense about Indigenous people and Whistler. The Lil’wat Nation and Squamish Nation—the two First Nations on whose unceded territories the place now known as Whistler exists—are alive, well, and wielding unprecedented influence over the Whistler experience.

Planning a trip to Whistler Blackcomb (someday)? Here’s how to make the most of your trip.

Case in point: In June 2020, the Squamish Nation, the Lil’wat Nation, Whistler Blackcomb, and the governments of both Whistler and British Columbia signed a landmark agreement centered on economic opportunities, cultural initiatives, environmental sustainability, and land usage (including developable real estate).

Whistler Blackcomb also is addressing inclusivity via on-mountain recreation programs, cross-cultural training for staff, an Indigenous Human Resources Strategy, and more. The Province of British Columbia calls the newly signed Framework Agreement “historic.” Whistler Blackcomb refers to it as a “pathway of partnership.” The Squamish Nation calls it “a significant milestone.”

The Lil’wat Nation’s Chief Dean Nelson shrugs and says, “It is a small step.”

“To understand,” says Chief Nelson, “you have to understand the history of the people.” Before history, though, comes a key fact: The 191 distinct First Nations in B.C. are considered under the law not to have ceded their lands except where there are signed treaties—and very few treaties exist.

When you’re skiing, dining, driving, sleeping, swimming, biking, and fishing in most of B.C., you’re doing it on First Nations’ unceded territories. Petroglyphs, pictographs, and other findings date First Nations’ continuous presence in the region back at least 5,500 years.

King George III’s Royal Proclamation of 1763 recognized that Indigenous people in what is now B.C. owned their lands and stated that treaties had to be signed before settlers could acquire them. One hundred years later, the Brits asserted B.C. was terra nullius— nobody’s land—and claimed it as their own.

In 1868, Canada’s Parliament passed what came to be known as “The Indian Act,” a legislative tool for forced assimilation, cultural destruction, and economic oppression, a variation of which remains in place today. Reserves were created on undesirable plots of land.

When you’re skiing, dining, driving, sleeping, swimming, biking, and fishing in most of B.C., you’re doing it on First Nations’ unceded territories.

Their residents became subject to a Byzantine and brutalizing structure of regulations and underfunded social supports. Traditional languages and practices were made illegal. Children were taken from their families en masse. Somehow, despite these atrocities, the First Nations and their values—as different from that of Eurocentric settler descendants as the day is from the night—survived.

Here’s how it all links to skiing: Starting in the 1920s, court decisions began recognizing First Nations’ rights and claims, a process that accelerated in the 1970s. In 1982, a new section of the Canadian Constitution affirmed fundamental Indigenous rights. But recognition under the law did not readily translate into redress.

In the mid-1980s, some First Nations began utilizing roadblocks and demonstrations to insist they be consulted on matters of land usage (such as logging, railways, and fisheries). Lawsuits ensued. Through the 1990s and 2000s, high courts increasingly decided in First Nations’ favor.

In 2007, the United Nations approved its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which calls for “free, prior, and informed consent” before economic development projects can take place on lands to which Indigenous people may have a claim. As tourism surrounding the 2010 Olympic Winter Games grew to become the third-largest resource-based industry in B.C., First Nations’ land rights advocacy increasingly came to encompass B.C. tourism’s gold medal experience: skiing.

Today in B.C., if a ski resort is going to be developed or expanded, a new ski run is going to be cut or a heli-ski company wants to add a new slab of terrain, it can only happen with engaged First Nations’ consultation and approval. As a result, Jumbo Glacier Resort, a proposed ski resort in south-eastern B.C., will never come to fruition; instead, those lands will become a protected Indigenous conservation area in alignment with the vision of the Ktunaxa Nation.

On the other hand, Garibaldi at Squamish, a proposed ski and summer resort between Whistler and Vancouver, is moving forward because of a strong partnership with the Squamish Nation. These are just two examples of many.

But First Nations—which continue to be subject to the Indian Act and in many cases remain impoverished and reeling from generations of trauma even as they work to reclaim their losses—don’t make such decisions only because of the monies they might gain.

Lil’wat and Squamish peoples, like other First Nations in B.C., are exerting reclaimed authority over their traditional lands in advocacy for the full spectrum of their peoples’ rights, culture, values, and interests.

Theirs are living cultures with values and realities so different from ours that we are challenged to put it all in context. While self-determination is a key goal, the Lil’wat and Squamish peoples, like other First Nations in B.C., are exerting reclaimed authority over their traditional lands in advocacy for the full spectrum of their peoples’ rights, culture, values, and interests. In the process, they are changing the direction of B.C.’s ski and mountain resort experience.

That photogenic Inukshuk atop Whistler Mountain actually has nothing to do with the Squamish or Lil’wat cultures (it hails from Indigenous people of the Arctic region), but the mountains and waters, forests and creatures, by-ways and spiritual sites in what is now a cosmopolitan and profitable town do.

Throughout that resort town and its dual mountains, artworks that actually are expressions of Squamish or Lil’wat culture increasingly offer a new and more accurate emblem of place. Highway markers bear site names from each of the First Nations in addition to those given by the English. Every public gathering, from a chairlift ribbon-cutting to a library book club, begins with an acknowledgment of the Squamish and Lil’wat peoples. Drummers and singers from one or both of the Nations open every major event.

None of it is meant to be decorative, or a gesture. “You have to know why you are being welcomed,” says Heather Paul, executive director of the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre. “They are here first. They are welcoming us because they need to remind us that we are on their land.”

It’s an opportunity, she explains, to “wake up”—to the history of colonialism, to its enduring presence in B.C.’s mountain communities today, and to a future where rugged grandeur, self-determination, and open-armed welcomes include the peoples on whose lands we all play.

Susan Reifer Ryan is a B.C.-based freelance writer and editor. On the importance of this story: “In Canada, reconciliation with First Nations is in the news literally every day. It’s also largely unknown to U.S. skiers.”