A sacred mountain in the middle of the Fraser Valley

Sumas Mountain is a hiker’s paradise, a developer’s dream, and a rapidly growing region’s prime source for gravel. It's also a sacred place for the people who have called the valley home for millenia.

Sumas Mountain is a lot of things to a lot of people these days. It is a hiker’s paradise, a developer’s dream, and a rapidly growing region’s prime source for gravel. The mountain is an essential part of the Fraser Valley’s landscape and home to numerous endangered plants and animals.

But Sumas Mountain has always been a lot of things to a lot of people, if not in quite the same way.

For Sto:lo people, the land that surrounds them is an essential part of their cultural life and spiritual conception of the world. And for members of the Sema:th First Nation, Sumas Mountain is at the core of that. A mountain-island perched above a historically prairie and wetland ecosystem, Sumas Mountain’s high forests were valued for its array of rare edible plants, and even today its ecosystem is one of the most unique in southwestern BC. In oral histories, the mountain was also where Sema:th people took refuge in the earth-shaping Great Flood that recast their world thousands of years ago. In the those histories, a respected man had predicted the rising waters and urged people to go to the top of Sumas Mountain. Some listened and survived. Those who searched out other mountains perished because those sites didn’t have Sumas Mountain’s supply of food or water.

“The sacredness of the mountain, I don’t know that anyone really understands the historic aspect of that,” Sema:th Chief Dalton Silver says.

On Monday, Silver’s First Nation issued a rare public statement declaring its opposition to a controversial quarry at the base of Sumas Mountain. The quarry had restarted earlier this year within 100 metres from a peregrine falcon nest, and work was twice stopped after blasting twice occurred closer to the nest than permitted. It remains halted. The statement said the peregrine falcon nest needs to be protected and that the Sema:th people have obligation to try to protect what little nature remains of their former land. The falcons are one component of that. So are the various watercourses that can be affected by gravel mining.

But for Silver, the issue goes beyond one quarry. Sema:th has been stating its opposition to quarries on the mountain for years. But despite promises from politicians, Silver has seen little change.

“It’s been the same as usual, regardless of the DRIPA (Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act) legislation,” he said. “We’ve been opposing the quarries for quite some time now, and no one seems to be hearing us.”

Sema:th declared it was opposed to the Quadling quarry years ago, and Silver said they expected a “back and forth” dialogue about the quarry. When it was given the green light earlier this year, Silver said it caught Sema:th by surprise, with questions and concerns remaining unanswered. In June, the First Nation sent a letter to ministers reaffirming its opposition and demanding a response by the end of the month. No response ever came. Hence Monday’s press release.

“We’ve been talked to about shared decision making and developments in our territories, and we haven’t really seen it on the ground. We haven’t seen it whatsoever, really.”

In an email, a government spokesperson said the province is “working on a response to the letters.”

Silver is gracious about the delay. Between COVID, the discovery of the residential school graves, and the fires, he says it is understandable that people are busy. But he also sees a disconnect between government ministers and high-minded rhetoric, and the people and institutions tasked with actually changing things.

“I think there’s some sincerity amongst some of the ministers themselves, and then it’s like others in the bureaucracy aren’t really getting it. It’s like the trickle-down effect of the information isn’t getting down to those that are really on the ground working within the bureaucracy.”

Silver has long opposed the quarries on Sumas Mountain, which, by some estimation, provides ⅓ of all gravel used for construction in the Lower Mainland. He says no more mines are needed, particularly those like the Quadling site with multiple environmental question marks. But he is also a realist. If gravel is going to continue to come out of the many other quarries already operating on the mountain, Silver says local First Nations need a say.

“It’s usually pretty normal for First Nations to have agreements with industries in their area, and we don’t have any arrangement whatsover with anything on the mountain,” he said. “There’s already like 10 quarry operations or so on the mountain, and these are folks that we will be talking with in the future.”

In just suggesting such an arrangement is possible, Silver is self-aware of the fact that his tone has softened dramatically from 20 years ago. So why bend?

“If I don’t, then everything would go negative. And I’m trying to look for something positive out of it for all of us. The reality is, we’re all here. I heard one of our elders from the coast talking about what’s happening with the unmarked graves and things and saying, ‘You know what, the reality is, we’re all here and we really have to look for a way to move forward together to be inclusive of the First Peoples.”

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