The theme for Tuesday’s announcements about the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, the unveiling of its logo and the forthcoming Sea to Sky Highway signage campaign, was two nations on a shared journey.
That journey began, Lil’wat Councillor Lyle Leo said, thousands of years ago when Squamish and Lil’wat shared a village at Rubble Creek, called Spo7ez. They shared that village and their overlapping territories “until the earth bled.” Legend has it that quarrelling among the inhabitants of Spo7ez led the Thunderbird to flap its wings, causing an earthquake that unleashed a rockslide. The rockslide buried the village and any traces of Spo7ez for centuries. In recent years, with development in the Rubble Creek area, a skull was found — and was traced back to the times of the ancient village.
The journey resumed, in effect, in 1997 when the Resort Municipality of Whistler, through former administrator Jim Godfrey, took the first steps to contact the Lil’wat on a government-to-government basis. The Squamish Nation also got involved and the concept of a cultural centre in Whistler was, in Leo’s words, drawn up on a napkin. Later, when the RMOW rezoned Crown land next to Fitzsimmons Creek for the cultural centre, then-councillor Ken Melamed said it was the only development on the forested site he could support.
In 2001, the Squamish and Lil’wat signed what is believed to be the only protocol agreement of its kind, which pledges the two First Nations to mutual co-operation and resolution of overlapping claims to traditional territories.
Part of the news Tuesday was that the financial journey to the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre is still not complete. The cost of the 30,000 square foot facility has now ballooned to $28.4 million, from an original estimate of $18 million — and the project is still a year away from completion.
However, the journey now involves more than just the two First Nations. The cultural centre will be a key symbol of the developing new relationship between First Nations and mainstream Canadian society. Certainly the federal and provincial governments have signaled their interest in seeing First Nations move forward and taking control of their lives. The corporate world is also interested, as we saw Tuesday with Bell Canada, the Royal Bank of Canada and the Four Seasons Resort Whistler all partnering and contributing to the cultural centre.
There is of course, and not coincidentally, a timing issue in all of this. It has to do with the 2010 Olympics, when the eyes of the world will be on Vancouver and Whistler. The federal and provincial governments will want to show the world evidence of this new relationship with First Nations. They are also undoubtedly aware of efforts to shame the Australian government over its treatment of Aborigines at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. How successful those efforts were is open to interpretation. There were some protests, a few “exposes” and some criticism for not doing more for Aborigines sooner, but there wasn’t the massive embarrassment some predicted and others hoped for. And any thoughts of protest turned to cheers when Cathy Freeman won the gold medal in the women’s 400 metre race.
Squamish Chief Gibby Jacob has said that he hopes to see a First Nations athlete in the 2010 Games, and many others share that hope. But even if there isn’t a First Nations athlete in the Games, First Nations art and culture will be a huge part of the event. VANOC’s Gary Youngman noted Tuesday that an Aboriginal component of the 2010 Games has been built into the structure of VANOC. And Stan Hagan, the provincial minister responsible for tourism, sport and the arts, reiterated that it may have been First Nations participation in the Olympic bid that made the difference in a very close vote by the IOC in 2003.
But this journey and this new partnership goes well beyond the 2010 Olympics. Across the province there is more political will and greater effort being put forward than ever before to resolve First Nations’ claims, provide means for economic development and self determination, while still respecting traditional values. Even if those efforts have yet to lead to any treaty agreements.
In the Sea to Sky corridor, the cultural centre will be the primary symbol of this journey, but hardly the only one. The Squamish Nation has several development projects throughout the corridor. Most are in partnership with non-First Nation companies, which is also significant: businesses have an interest in this journey.
And for Whistler, which played an important role in re-energizing this journey, the cultural centre is a big part of our future, too. Well beyond 2010, and regardless of what impact climate change has on the ski business, arts and culture and dialogue are going to become more and more important to Whistler’s bottom line, more important for filling hotel rooms.
And beyond the Squamish and Lil’wat, the physical journey to Whistler will someday be via a secondary road from Harrison, through In-Shuck-ch territory.