Supreme Court hears landmark case on Indigenous religious freedoms

The Ktunaxa First Nation say their constitutional rights to religious freedom are being violated by a proposed ski resort.
The Jumbo Glacier Resort project already offers year-round training for ski teams in B.C.'s Purcell Mountains. (Farnham Glacier Adventures)

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A fight to build a ski resort on land considered sacred by an Indigenous group in B.C. is in the hands of the Supreme Court of Canada. This precedent-setting case is the first to examine whether the spiritual connection Indigenous peoples' have with their land is protected by freedom of religion.

In 2012, developers received the green-light to build a four-season glacier skiing destination on Jumbo Mountain, in the southeast corner of British Columbia.

The Ktunaxa First Nation says that mountain is a sacred space, home to the spirit of the Grizzly Bear.

Josh Paterson, the executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, explains that if this particular site were developed, the Grizzly Bear deity that informs Ktunaxa spirituality would no longer be available, causing "profound harm" to their religious practice.

Paterson see's this case as a matter of protecting the integrity of freedom of religion for all Canadians.

"If this is ignored," says Paterson "then Indigenous peoples will be getting less protection of freedom of religion than other Canadians. It will be harder for them to make their claims.  Their spirituality is tied to their lands. The government and courts will be saying 'we don't think that's really important enough.'"

Given the amount of resources used to protect holy spaces worldwide, Paterson says the discussion revolves around value — whether or not the courts recognize Indigenous claims to sacred sites. 

You wouldn't want to develop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, you wouldn't want to destroy the The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.- Josh Patterson

"It's time for governments to start considering Indigenous spirituality, and taking that into account in making its decisions, just as they have to take into account the freedom of religion of other Canadians who are impacted by decisions that could affect their spirituality."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith and John Chipman.