The fast growing community of Sun Peaks has been attracting new residents, more guests and additional real estate development. But what impact has that had on the local water aquifer? Here’s the third in a series of four in-depth articles regarding the challenges of the water situation in Sun Peaks, made possible only by reader contributions.

The first and second stories in this series can be read here and here.

As municipality
begins its next phase of water infrastructure development, Miranda Dick says the group’s development concerns remain

Miranda Dick said protestors of resort development were concerned about water supply. Photo Miranda Dick

Having taken part in the Indigenous collective action against the development of Sun Peaks in the early 2000s, a matriarch of the Secwépemc Nation says she is deeply concerned with Sun Peaks Mountain Resort Municipality’s (SPMRM)’s new, $6.5 million surface water project.  

Miranda Dick said her primary concern relates to the influx of development—and people—that the reservoir project will facilitate. 

“Obviously, having new updated infrastructure would be a further encroachment onto our land,” she said, adding that this would represent a further desecration to the sacred area.  

The area, known as Skwelkwek’welt, a Secwépemc place name which means high alpine, has long been used for collecting traditional plants and medicines by the Secwépemc people, said Dick.

“We were using the land and using the water and everything that pertains to it,” said Dick, from her home in Chase, B.C.

She maintained the Secwépemc have never agreed to development in the area, and that any further expansion should not be permitted. 

“The title [for the area] has not been addressed,” she said.

In Dick’s view, the referral process between the province and elected bands that is in place is fundamentally flawed.

“They’re not the true title holders,” said Dick. 

Dick said Indigenous people simply aren’t benefiting from the success of Sun Peaks.

“Who’s making the money?” said Dick. “It  isn’t the Indigenous people.” 

Dick added that environmental concerns were central to the Indigenous-led protests that took place in the early 2000s. After learning about the resort’s planned expansion in media reports, a number of influential Secwépemc elders formed the Watershed Protection Committee in the late 1990’s she explained.

Water has been a key reason for some objections to development of the resort. Photo SPIN

Japanese-based Nippon Cable Co. purchased Tod Mountain in 1992, and by  the end of the decade had changed the mountain’s name and was moving forward with a $70 million dollar expansion plan. 

Dick said the protesters, who largely were members of the Adams Lake, Neskonlith and Little Shuswap bands, would meet informally around kitchen tables to discuss its impact. 

Neskonlith elected chief and internationally celebrated leader in Indigenous rights, Arthur Manuel, who served as one of the leaders and spokespersons for the original group, cited environmental concerns as a driving force for the protest in a pamphlet designed to raise awareness for the group’s concerns. 

“For generations our people have watched the depletion of plants and animals we depend on and the disturbances to the rivers and forests, due to the activities of relatively recent arrivals to our country. The environmental degradation has become so serious that we are now taking action and intervening to change the situation in the region,” he wrote during the protest period. 

“The present land rights policy of the Canadian government subsidizes industries that use our land or extract natural resources from our traditional territories without considering our proprietary interest. Sun Peaks Ski Resort falls within the historic Neskonlith Douglas Reserve established in 1862. This is clearly a responsibility of the Federal Government under Section 91 (24) of the Canadian Constitution.” 

A 2018 study commissioned by SPMRM concluded the community has been overdrawing from its groundwater system—which has an estimated sustainable aquifer yield of 180,000 cubic litres a year—since 2013. This fact has been cited by council in their support of the community’s new surface water project, which water engineers say will take pressure off the community’s aquifer. 

Thomas Pypker, a Sun Peaks resident and climate change and ecosystems management professor at Thompson Rivers University, said the community isn’t unique when it comes to overdrawing from its aquifer. 

“We’re doing this all over the world,” he said. 

He added that while aquifers replenish naturally, overdrawing from them, as SPMRM has done for years, can cause them to shrink, like a lake without a steady source of freshwater. 

Pypker said the aquifers can add cool water to streams, helping to create a healthy ecosystem.  

“This can affect things like fish movement,” he said. “Groundwater tends to be cool, and in the hot summer months, it can sometimes supply cold water to streams, which is important for fish because there’s more [dissolved] oxygen in [cold water].”

The collective Indigenous action at Sun Peaks, which began in 1999 and ramped up in 2000 and 2001, resulted in numerous arrests and court battles in which the Neskonlith, Adams Lake and Little Shuswap Indian bands sought to establish Aboriginal title over the Sun Peaks area. 

These three bands, with the support of  the Shuswap Nation Tribal Council and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, would later oppose the incorporation of the municipality later in the decade, saying that the incorporation process was illegal and that they were not properly consulted on the resort’s development. 

Dick, along with others, was arrested for taking part in a roadblock in 2001.

“We were there for pretty much 12 hours,” she recalled. “We were allowing residents to come and go. If you took a flyer from us, you were allowed to pass, we weren’t stopping or impeding.”

The protesters were, however, blocking tourists from entering the area, she added.

Dick would eventually get conditional orders and probation for her role in the protests. Under the terms of her agreement with the province she is not allowed to return to the community, she said.   

Dick’s dedication to the protection of her traditional lands remains strong, as herself and other members of the Secwépemc nation actively oppose the dumping of biosolids and other encroachments in other areas of their unceded territory through the Secwépemc’ulecw Grassroots Movement group and Secwépemc Women’s Sacred Fire. 

Today, Dick said the government should not be supporting the next phase of SPMRM’s water infrastructure project given that many First Nations across Canada don’t have access to clean-drinking water. 

According to a 2019 Human Rights Watch report, at least 56 drinking water advisories were in place and “the underlying systemic water and wastewater problems facing First Nations in Canada remain, including a lack of regulations to protect drinking water on reserves.”

File photo

“If you’re looking across Canada, we don’t have water running facilities in our own houses,” said Dick. “You think of the injustice, of Canada’s further encroachment onto our land and our Mother Earth.” 

Reflecting on the experience at Sun Peaks, Dick said that while the group did not ultimately get what they wanted, it was a significant period of cultural renewal for everyone involved. 

“I learned so much during the time of our encampment,” she said. “We learned so much about what an aquifer was, what a watershed was and why it should be protected. 

“So, in a sense, we didn’t lose anything. In court, we may have lost but in indigenous circle we won so much.”