During the last decade, as Jumbo Glacier Resort's plans for an all-season ski resort in the Purcell Mountains wilderness have inched their way through a labyrinth of controversy, protest and legislation, proponents have had a powerful ally in Victoria.
Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett, the often-outspoken MLA whose East Kootenay riding is south of the Jumbo site, has been instrumental in many of Glacier Resort's steps towards approval and, in the nearby community of Invermere, almost all conversations about Jumbo include references to Bennett.
In 2012, as minister of community, sport and cultural development, Bennett led changes to the Local Government Act that allowed the province to create the Jumbo Glacier Mountain Resort Municipality with no residents. He then announced the appointment of Mayor Greg Deck and two councillors. Deck is chair of Columbia Basin Trust and former mayor of Radium Hotsprings, a community that supported the Jumbo proposal.
Bennett led Glacier Resorts delegation to France
The same year, Bennett led a delegation of Glacier Resorts board members, ski industry representatives and local politicians to France to meet potential investors.
Although Bennett paid for his own fare, the trip infuriated Jumbo opponents, including Kathryn Teneese, chair of Ktunaxa Nation Council.
"I was fuming. I called Pat Bell (then jobs and tourism minister) and he tried to tell me Bill Bennett wasn't representing government," Teneese said in an interview.
"But he's an MLA. How could he separate himself? He's not there as Joe Citizen."
Those prospective investors later visited the Jumbo area and were met with protesters. It is not known whether Glacier Resorts Ltd. has found investors for the billion-dollar project.
Bennett, whose staff said he was not available to speak to DeSmog Canada, has made no secret of his disdain for the resort's opponents, telling a Columbia Valley newspaper that they were "professional Chicken Littles."
In news releases, Bennett has extolled the benefits of the plan, saying it will create 750 to 800 jobs and, in 2013 speaking in the legislature, Bennett said the gondola to the top of Jumbo Mountain would bring visitors from around the world to the Columbia Valley.
"There will be nothing like this in North America," he said.
Bennett's support for the project was underlined in June this year when -- together with Transportation Minister Todd Stone and Community, Sports and Cultural Development Minister Coralee Oakes -- he toured the Jumbo site by helicopter to look at improving the road leading into the site. The ministers then met with Deck and the two-member Jumbo council, but did not meet with Invermere Mayor Gerry Taft who opposes the plans.
Columbia River-Revelstoke NDP MLA Norm Macdonald, whose riding includes the Jumbo site, is adamantly opposed to the development and, especially as he believes public sentiment is resolutely against the plan, he cannot understand why Bennett and members of the area's Liberal constituency association are so intimately involved. (A 2008 random survey of Kootenay residents by McAllister Opinion Research found 63 per cent opposed to the Jumbo resort proposal, 19 per cent in favour and 18 per cent undecided.)
A tangled web: Glacier Resort's connections to the B.C. Liberals
Grant Costello, vice-president of Glacier Resorts Ltd., is president of the Columbia River-Revelstoke Liberal Riding Association and Doug Clovechok, who appears in news stories speaking in support of Jumbo, was the Liberal candidate in last year's election.
"One of the mysteries is why he has got his nose in it at all," said NDP MLA Norm Macdonald, adding that people worry about publicly criticizing Bennett because he is a powerful minister.
"This is complete insider stuff. It's a remote corner of the province and they're getting away with stuff no one would get away with anywhere else... Everything about it feels like cronyism at its worst," Macdonald said.
Details, including a breakdown of investors, need to be made public as the project involves provincial money and there will be other taxpayer expenses, including clean-up costs if the project fails, Macdonald said.
"It's dependent on public money and it's on public land and we have to build a road to it when there are so many other priorities for roads," he said.
"The public has a right to know."
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Taft, Invermere's mayor, also worries about the Bennett influence on public policy and believes the East Kootenay Regional District vote, which asked the province to form the Jumbo Glacier Mountain Resort Municipality, was the result of "loyalty and fear of Bill Bennett."
"I think people are afraid of being on his bad side or not impressing him," he said.
While opponents claim Bennett and a small group of supporters are trying to push the project ahead, Tommaso Oberti, vice-president of Pheidias Project Management Corp., said the shoe is on the other foot and, for years, a group of committed opponents have tried to disrupt the project.
"The handful of people you met are the leaders of the anti-Jumbo movement and they simply do not accept the years of studies and review," he said in an e-mailed response to questions. "They have propagated a public relations campaign that is not based on fact or reality."
But Macdonald believes Glacier Resorts has been responsible for many of the delays during the 24-year process and he wonders about the motivation.
"They controlled the timing for a lot of that period, so, if things didn't happen, they didn't happen because they didn't move it along."
The proposal was initially approved by then NDP premier Mike Harcourt, although NDP MLAs are now opposed to the plan. Major delays have included provincial land-use reviews and a lengthy Environmental Assessment review, but, since the Environmental Assessment Certificate was granted a decade ago, there has been little physical progress at the site.
By Judith Lavoie, DeSmog Canada