“People are freaking out,” the email from a climbing friend warned.
The message included a link to a CBC News report that the B.C. government was transferring a parcel of Crown land to the Squamish Nation — including the Petrifying Wall, a “world-class rock climbing area” in the Sea to Sky corridor of southwestern B.C.
He went on. “What’s going to happen with the Pet Wall? Will Squamish cut off access?”
And the email’s subject line revealed deeper fears: “This is only the beginning...”
My friend said he respects the rights of First Nations. But what about the rights of people who had been climbing there for decades?
“Don’t we have a say?” he wondered. “If we don’t do something, the government is going to start handing over land to First Nations and the rights of all Canadians to access recreational areas will be lost.”
The questions reveal powerful fears and anxieties that affect our sense of identity and how we function as a country.
This isn’t a new conflict. Certainly not for the Squamish Nation, who has been fighting for decades to assert its rights and title throughout its territories. And it does have implications across the province.
The Squamish Nation hasn’t set out the future for the land or recreational access, spokesperson Khelsilem told the CBC.
“Once the land is returned to us, we’ll engage our community — our own members — in terms of developing a land use provision that our community wants for the area. We’re going to make decisions that are in the interest of our people.”
Some people see the idea that the First Nation might end access to the Pet Wall as deeply unfair. Many in the climbing community feel left out of the process and are upset they weren’t consulted. Some wrote letters to Squamish council, saying “losing access to Pet Wall would be devastating to the climbing community.”
“Had climbers been consulted... a lobbying effort would have been made to request Pet Wall’s exclusion from the transfer parcel,” wrote one climber.
For many Canadians, reconciliation and land title are abstract concepts. Most of us likely express a genuine desire to see justice for Indigenous peoples, but we’re rarely asked to make personal sacrifices to make that happen.
Issues around access to land for recreation can force people to confront the realities of our country’s history and its ongoing status as a colonial state. It can be an unsettling experience.
I was introduced to the challenge in 2013. I had initiated a new non-profit, the Aboriginal Youth Mountain Bike Program, dedicated to supporting Indigenous youth in getting outdoors and living healthy, active lives. I’d volunteered with the Mountain Bike Tourism Association to coordinate a symposium on the program in Sooke on Vancouver Island. It would include time to ride trails near the community.
Then I received a distressing call.
“We’ve got a problem,” said Martin Littlejohn, executive director for the association. The T’Sou-ke First Nation had just signed a pre-treaty settlement agreement that gave them ownership of an area called Broom Hill. The hill happened to be a popular mountain bike destination, one of few in the area.
“Not sure what this means for the symposium,” Littlejohn commented. “Will we be allowed to ride the trails?”
Like the Squamish Nation, the T’Sou-ke were still working on plans for the land. The community had not yet decided what to do with the land, Chief Gordon Planes told the local newspaper. “There will be lots of discussions.”
In the following weeks, there was a buzz throughout the riding community. People were upset that they hadn’t been consulted. They worried about losing access to trails they had built.
“Imagine putting in all that time and work into building trails, caring for them, sharing them with your friends and family, just to have them suddenly taken away,” one rider wrote.
Over the next few months, Littlejohn and I reached out to Chief Planes, convinced we could persuade him and his nation of the positive benefits of welcoming mountain biking into their territories: enhanced opportunities for healthy living, economic development, tourism and jobs.
His replies were consistent. The T’sou-ke people and elders would make the decision. They would decide what’s in their best interests.
As the symposium drew closer I started to panic. The idea that the T’Sou-ke people might say no terrified me. I imagined the issue spreading throughout the province as First Nations asserted their rights and settled land claims and treaties. What if this was the beginning of the end for mountain biking?
I received another phone call. “Chief Planes has agreed to participate in the symposium,” said Littlejohn.
“His nephew works at the local bike shop,” he added. “Chief Planes stopped by and his nephew told him about how he and his friends, and other kids from T’Sou-ke, ride the trails on Broom Hill and how important it is for them. I guess that’s all Planes needed to hear.”
It had never occurred to me that young T’Sou-ke people might be using the trails themselves.
For the symposium we organized a panel featuring Chief Planes as our keynote speaker. He spoke eloquently and powerfully about the history of the T’Sou-ke Nation, the impacts of colonialism and the importance of having Broom Hill returned to his people.
“We will regain our culture, our language, when we return to the mountain, to the land,” he explained. “That mountain is our church, where we have gathered to pray since time immemorial. We call it Sacred Mountain. Imagine how you might feel if strangers came and built trails and rode their bikes through your church?”
The room was quiet.
I thought about all the times I’d gone for a ride with little knowledge about the trails and the land they are built on. I thought about the role recreation has played in the bloody history of colonialism. From national parks to cottage country to ski hills and country clubs, Indigenous peoples have been systemically removed from their lands to make way for euro-centric ideals of conservation and recreation.
We like to think we’re just getting out for a bike ride or hike or a paddle on a lake, but every time we step out of our door we’re participating in an explicit political act, built atop hundreds of years of history that we can’t pretend simply doesn’t exist.
Planes closed his address with an observation.
“I’m happy that our youth are getting out on the mountain, riding and connecting to the land. That gives me hope. Perhaps they will be riding bikes on trails because we left something for them.”
Then Lorien Arnold, owner of the local bike shop and president of the Sooke Mountain Bike Club, stood up and addressed Planes. “Thank you for sharing your history and your story of Sacred Mountain.” He paused. “I would like to ask if you would, please, give us your consent to ride the trails today?”
There was a long pause. I held my breath. What if he said no? Would we, as a community, respect that choice, even if it meant losing access to our beloved trails?
Chief Planes looked around the room and leaned forward. Finally, he spoke. “OK,” he said and gave a short wave of his hand to demonstrate his consent. Relief rippled through the room.
Planes made it clear that this didn’t represent a long-term commitment. His people would still take the time they needed to decide what was best for Sacred Mountain and the T’Sou-ke Nation.
The mountain bike community could continue to ride, but must respect and acknowledge Indigenous rights and title and the nation’s creator-given role as caretakers and stewards of the land. And, in time, we would need to accept and work within the framework of their decisions.
It was a start. By holding a space for Chief Planes, by listening and considering the story of the T’Sou-ke people, we created an opportunity for our own community to rethink our relationship with the land, recognizing it as one that requires ongoing care and renewal. We had the chance to recognize that we must work with First Nations.
Facing these truths is difficult, even scary. But the outdoor recreation community has always thrived on new risks and challenges, pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zones and facing our fears. That’s how we grow into better athletes and more fully realized human beings.
Following the panel, people bustled about the conference hall preparing to go riding.
One person asked, “Are we riding Broom Hill?”
“No,” came the response. “It’s Sacred Mountain. We’re riding on T’Sou-ke land. Show some respect.”
Those lessons have spread throughout the mountain bike community. Through the Aboriginal Youth Mountain Bike Program, we’ve made it our primary mission to advocate for trails and mountain biking that foster authentic reconciliation.
Most important, when a First Nation decides a trail is not in its best interest, when it says no, we accept and respect that decision. It’s hard, but not nearly as hard as knowing we’re causing harm by undermining a nation’s relationship with its ancestral lands.
We haven’t faced wholesale exclusion. With the creation of respectful and meaningful dialogue, by simply listening, we’ve found ways of moving forward. The riding community has emerged stronger than ever, creating trails and riding experiences that work for everyone.
As the controversy around the Pet Wall climbing area intensified, a statement issued by Jeffrey Norman, president of the Squamish Off-road Cycling Association, heartened me.*
“We recognize that we live on the lands of the Squamish Nation. We unequivocally support the Squamish Nation’s right to self-determinacy on its lands, and we are grateful to share in the spirit and beauty of this place.”
We still have a long way to go to fully realize the vision of reconciliation. This is only the beginning.
RESPONSE: CHIEF GORDON PLANES ON THE T’SOU-KE NATION’S CHALLENGES TODAY
Chief Gordon Planes remembers the 2013 mountain biking symposium well.
But six years on, he says his nation still faces many challenges in accommodating mountain bikers and other outdoor recreation enthusiasts in T’Sou-ke territory.
Mountain bikers are always pressing to expand the trail system, Planes says. But it’s difficult for the nation to allow new trails, given its focus on healing the land from past resource extraction and restoring it to its natural state.
“If we want to consider who we are as Coast Salish people, we’re always thinking about enhancement. Healing the land, and giving species time to breathe,” said Chief Planes.
Protecting the biodiversity of the region is critical to the T’Sou-ke, and that means protecting large swathes of area from any kind of development so that various species can thrive.
“Cultural health can only happen with environmental health,” said Planes, noting the T’Sou-ke rely on a healthy environment to hunt and gather food and other supplies.
Planes noted that hiking clubs and horse-riders also use the trails. All of that activity compounds the effects on the environment. “If we’re all going to work together in a good way, can we do that? Those questions are still being answered.”
There aren’t many T’Sou-ke people today who mountain bike, he added.
But the nation is still working on how to balance the use of its lands.
“Our natural law is, you should never disrupt Mother Nature. That’s the kind of the context we’re working in.” – Robyn Smith, Tyee editor
*Story corrected Nov. 26 at 7:15 a.m. to fix the name of the off-road cycling association.