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Different ways of knowing

First Nations cultural centres take different approaches to preserving heritage



At the corner of Lorimer Road and Blackcomb Way sits a plot of undeveloped land. Resting between towering four-star hotels and a parking lot of luxury SUVs, this cluster of five acres alongside Fitzsimmons Creek is a rare jewel in Whistler's heart. The Crown land has been zoned by the Resort Municipality of Whistler and earmarked for the site of Whistler's First Nations Cultural Centre. Whistler's First Nations Cultural Centre you ask? Yes.

Although it is not immediately apparent in our modern four-season resort, the Whistler valley is traditional territory for both the Squamish and Lil'wat people and was used extensively as a summer hunting and meeting ground before pioneer settlers arrived at the turn of the 20 th century. While there is little indigenous activity in the valley now, sacred sites still exist on Blackcomb Mountain and petroglyphs can be found on certain rocks along Green Lake.

The idea for a cultural centre in Whistler arose about six years ago when the RMOW and people from the Squamish and Lil'wat nations began to think about ways that First Nations people could help the resort and vice versa. With strong international tourism and the Olympics on the horizon, a cultural centre was deemed to be an attractive endeavour. However, the idea is not unique to Whistler. In the last 20 years, such projects have become increasingly desirable to a number of First Nations groups across the province.

In the last two decades, B.C.'s First Nations people have been working to regain control over their culture, history and identities - a struggle that began more than 200 years ago with the arrival of European settlers. Along with their ships and colonies, the European pioneers also brought new languages, tools, weapons, sugar, alcohol and illness. Diseases like smallpox and measles were deadly to the First Nations people whose immune systems had not been exposed to such viruses. It is estimated that in 1780 the native population in B.C. was 80,000. By 1930 that number had declined to 20,000.

With the loss of such numbers, it was believed that the First Nations population would eventually die out. When it became clear that this was not going to happen, the Canadian government created a policy to assimilate the indigenous people. Tribes were moved off their traditional lands onto government-approved reserves and laws were created to control native culture. Ceremonial practices such as the potlatch festival were outlawed; anyone caught disobeying was jailed and their associated regalia taken away. First Nations children were placed into government-run residential schools where indigenous language, culture, dress and religion were prohibited.

Such policies and practices were accepted until the 1970s, when the United Nations officially recognized the world's indigenous people as having the right to self-determination, the ability to freely determine political status and the means to pursue economic, social and cultural development. As Canadian First Nations policies were amended, B.C.'s First Nations people embarked on a quest to regain their identity. One of the means of achieving such a goal was to re-visit the treaty process abandoned at the end of the 19 th century with both the federal and provincial governments. In addition to recognizing Canada's indigenous populations as exactly that - the First Nations - treaties also ensure rights to access and control traditional lands, natural resources, language, education and culture. Cultural centres were developed from the treaty process as a place for First Nations to house, preserve, exhibit, participate and teach culture.

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