King of the mountain: For 20 years, a Lil’wat chief keeps a lonely vigil in the B.C. woods

By Nancy Macdonald
Globe and Mail
July 1, 2019

[with video]

To ski-resort developers, Sutikalh is a pristine mountainside that could become the next Whistler. To First Nations, it’s traditional land they are committed to protect. And to Hubert (Hubie) Jim, it’s home and a cause that has changed his life – and he’s not leaving there any time soon

Hubert Jim says he can smell visitors long before he ever sees them. The wind, he says, carries their scent: sunscreen, deodorant, soaps, shampoos – all of it sickly sweet, unmistakably human and foreign to the alpine wilderness he calls home.

This sounds, of course, like total hokum. But a few hours after saying it, Hubie, as Mr. Jim is better known, suddenly went pounding down the winding one-kilometre trail leading to a sturdy, log bridge he built years ago. There, on the far side of the churning, white waters of the Cayoosh Creek stood a pair of bemused retirees from Britain, blinking in the hot, spring sun. They were stretching their legs – a pit stop on a camper trip across the province. Hubie had apparently nosed them out.

He was 37 when he moved to the mountain for good. This fall Hubie turns 57, marking almost 20 years living alone in a shack in B.C. grizzly territory, 40-kilometres northeast of Pemberton. Unless he is forcibly removed, Hubie, a Lil’wat Nation hereditary chief, says he will die here.

The protest camp named Sutikalh was erected in 2000 by a group of First Nations people aiming to stop the last, pristine watershed on Lil’wat lands from being turned into a ski hill. The resort would rival Whistler, the co-host of the 2010 Winter Olympics and playground to the global super rich that also happens to be located on the traditional territories of the Lil’wat Nation.

Within a year, every protester except Hubie had gone home.

Construction on the Cayoosh Resort at Melvin Creek was mothballed owing to Indigenous opposition. The developers – former Olympian Nancy Greene Raine and her husband, Al Raine, the mayor of Sun Peaks, B.C. – however, could still build on the land in the future depending on the outcome of consultations with First Nations in the area. Because of this, Hubie still doesn’t feel it is safe to leave the mountain untended.

“So much of the world has already been destroyed,” he says. “I’m looking after the mountain not just for the Lil’wat, but so the whole world can enjoy it.”

Two decades on, he is operating what might be Canada’s longest-running protest camp. For this, he has sacrificed his youth, a job, the possibility of love. He has endured crippling loneliness. He came close to starving to death one winter.

And yet he has been largely forgotten, including by members of his own family. Even the Raines were unaware his protest was ongoing.

Hubie’s stand, however meaningful to him, may not be needed. It is unlikely the Raines will ever break ground on the Cayoosh Resort, whether he is there or not.

The idea to build a new ski resort in the Cayoosh Range came about in the late 1980s. The Raines spent five years on chartered helicopters looking for the perfect mountain bowl – one at a higher elevation than Whistler, with more sun and snow. Another eight years were devoted to the necessary environmental assessments, a process that cost more than $1-million.

A new ski resort on Lil’wat lands could mean jobs for the 2,500 members of the chronically underfunded first nation, B.C.’s third largest, by population. The roads in Mount Currie, as the community is known locally, were not paved until 1966. Until 1987, it had no high school. And there has only been regular bus service into neighbouring Pemberton for a decade and a half.

But Hubie, who was born in Whistler before it became a resort, doesn’t believe another ski hill will lift his people from poverty: “They told us Whistler would be good for the Lil’wat. But in the end, all we got were dishwashing jobs, snow-shovelling jobs. Our people were left cleaning up after the rich.” Few in the community, he says, have ever visited the resort.

Mayor Raine, who turns 78 in the fall, believes he won’t live long enough to see Cayoosh Resort open. “It ain’t gonna work," he says. It’s time, he adds, “to sit down with my dear wife and talk about transferring the certificate over to the St’at’imc Chiefs Council. If [the ski resort] ever does go ahead, they should be the ones developing it.”

The mountain at stake is unnamed on government maps, lumped in with the farrago of craggy peaks that make up the rugged Cayoosh range. It crowns the pristine Melvin Creek Valley, which was named for the waterway running through it.

Hubie’s nearby camp is known as Sutikalh (pronounced shoe-tee-kah), which means “place of the winter spirit.” It sits along the rushing, blue waters of Cayoosh Creek, a glacial river that feeds the mighty Fraser at Lillooet. In the great sweep of earth watched over by Hubie, there is no sign of human activity.

Nearby petroglyphs attest to Lil’wat people having lived in the area for more than 2,500 years. Apart from a few transients who lingered after the Fraser Gold Rush in the 1800s, the territory was almost exclusively Indigenous until well into the 20th century.

Lil’wat (pronounced leet-watt) is the largest of the 11 communities that form the St’at’imc Nation. The St’at’imc’s vast territory extends from the coastal inlets of the Pacific Ocean to the Stein Valley in the B.C. Interior, an area covering more than 8,000 square kilometres. The St’at’imc, like three-quarters of B.C. first nations, never signed a treaty with the Crown.

Still, they were forced onto reserves as settlers flooded the province, leading to food shortages. This drove the St’at’imc (pronounced shtat-lum) leadership to take a stand. On May 10, 1911, chiefs representing all 11 St’at’imc communities signed the Declaration of the Lillooet Tribe at Spences Bridge, B.C., protesting the seizure of their lands:

“We have always lived in our Country; at no time have we ever deserted it or left it to others. We have retained it from the invasion of other tribes at the cost of our blood. We are aware the B.C. government claims our Country; but we deny their right to it. We never gave it nor sold it to them … and none other than us could have any right to give them title.”

That assertion of St’at’imc sovereignty marked the beginning of Indigenous resistance in B.C., and birthed a strong tradition of protest and resistance among the Lil’wat. Hubie’s relatives were among the 53 First Nations people arrested in 1978 for netting salmon on Lil’wat reserve lands; and the 53 arrested in 1990 for blockading a B.C. rail line; and the 63 also arrested in 1990, during a four-month blockade of Duffey Lake Road to protest clear cut logging and the expropriation of Lil’wat reserve lands.

The blockades of 1990, which began in support of the Mohawk at Oka, Que., devastated the economies of Pemberton and Lillooet, inflamed tensions and anger throughout the province, and ultimately forced the B.C. government to reverse 119 years of policy and agree to finally begin negotiating land claims with first nations in the province.

Ideas and feelings move across Hubie’s unlined face like wind on the surface of a lake. When he’s animated, which is most of the time, one eye grows wide, bulging like it might leap from its socket. He covers his unkempt halo of grey hair with a black cap and dresses in hand-me-downs donated by a Christian couple from B.C.’s Bible Belt.

He has the grace of an animal: simultaneously calm and wild. And he walks like a bear, stepping into his own tracks, the way his grandmother Mariah Thevarge taught him, careful not to flatten a fern or insect or knock the head off a mushroom.

He has no patience for social niceties, speaks in soliloquys and doesn’t take kindly to interruptions. He can be entertaining, candid, blunt, mean. Ask the same question twice and he will call you a “Goddamn idiot.”

But there is a gentle, generous soul beneath that prickly shell. The protective cover was built over decades of hatred and mistreatment: at the hands of his father, a former boxer and angry drunk; cattle country racists who couldn’t see past his missing teeth and tawny coloured skin; the predatory priests at St. Joseph’s school, south of Williams Lake, the residential school to which his mother Vivian Jim was forced to send him under threat of arrest. St. Joseph’s was among the most notorious residential schools in B.C. Several former teachers were jailed in the 1980s and ’90s for sex crimes involving dozens of their former students.

Hubie arrived at Sutikalh weighing 285 pounds, wearing a size 40 pant, with a six-pack-a-day drinking habit. He was a mean drunk, a brawler. And he was lost.

His little brother, Gary, his only sibling had just died by suicide: “I was supposed to go ahead of him. But he couldn’t get the priest who raped him out of his head.”

He’d married and divorced in the same year, his only relationship. “She wanted cocaine, I didn’t,” he explains with a shrug.

He had a Grade 7 education and was working a string of low-paying jobs, grooming runs at Whistler and cooking at Willie G’s, a greasy spoon in Pemberton.

A conversation with his grandmother, who had pulled him and Gary out of St. Joseph’s when he told her what the priests were up to, changed everything. Mariah asked her grandson to take care of the mountain, which was used to be a key training ground for traditional healers in the community. “If I lost this place, I’d be ashamed to face my grandma in the afterlife.”

Arriving at Sutikalh with nothing but time on his hands forced Hubie to take a long, hard look at the “ugly” man he had become. He realized his diet of fried food and booze was slowly killing him, so he started to eat like his ancestors – plenty of salmon, deer, root vegetables. He quit drinking cold turkey. He started to read. Soon, he was ploughing through any book he could get his hands on. War and Peace is the best he ever read.

Within a few months of hauling water and chopping wood and building a permanent camp, all the excess weight had fallen off him. He started to remember Mariah’s teachings and could soon identify 24 edible berries. He knew the tip of a pine tree could stand in for Tylenol, that salmonberry tea would quench his thirst. He spiced stir-frys with stinging nettle and cow parsnip, and knew to steer clear of cinnamon coloured black bears, which “have a bit of griz blood."

Over the years, he slowly learned to express love and to trust the few who continue to visit him, and to choke out a gruff apology to a reporter when his quick temper gets the better of him.

“If I hadn’t come to Sutikalh I’d be dead – like the rest of my family,” he says. “This mountain saved me. If it concludes my life, I will give it willingly. I will give my life to Sutikalh.”

Hubie likes to say the forest is his grocery store, his pharmacy and his hardware store all in one: “It provides me food, shelter, medicine, tools and heating.”

But his hermitage is hardly pure. After dark, he wears a miner’s lamp, allowing him to read and cook. He’s hooked up solar panels to allow him to blast the blues all day. When night falls, he fires up a gas-powered generator to watch DVDs. He’s seen Jackie Chan’s Dragon Blade, his current favourite, 22 times.

He built his one-room cabin over the years by himself, using a mishmash of vinyl, windows, wood and furniture he rescued from the trash. The front door came from an old hotel in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. He built a sleigh for hauling wood from two old downhill skis and a length of blue rope from an old fishing boat. He built a set of weights by hanging a pully attached to a bucket of bricks from the rafters.

He solved the problem of elimination by digging an outhouse and regularly covering the waste with ash to smother larvae and the smell. He soaks his laundry in rain buckets with baking soda, then stirs the dirt out using a six-foot stick.

He shares his icy “bath hole,” at the base of a waterfall with brook and rainbow trout.

For 12 years running, he has kept the same fire alight in his muttering, hissing cook stove – right through the heat of summer. He keeps a pot of boiling water on it all the time: for tea and medical emergencies.

Once, he had to sew seven stitches into his thumb. Another time, he spent hours pulling a nerve out of his gum using a pair of pliers.

But he has never bothered to cover the uneven, rock floor. He likes to feel the earth beneath his feet.

The modern world has made us strangers to ourselves, Hubie says. “We have forgotten we came from the forest. This is who we really are.”

Hubie is caring and generous, but he has a darker side characterized by paranoia and thoughts verging on obsessive. Early on, the resistance camp was targeted by locals furious with the Lil’wat for getting the way of a development that could have transformed the regional economy with the creation of 7,000 jobs and an influx of wealthy tourists. He says he was beaten up and lost several teeth. In 2000, the RCMP investigated after the camp was burned to the ground. He remains convinced that angry locals still threaten Sutikalh, which he refuses to leave, even for funerals.

Hubie may be king of the mountain, but he lives in the grip of forces over which he has no control: the November winds, the revolutions of the earth. His thoughts are dominated by surviving winter, when clear nights bite the skin, daylight passes in a breath and steady Pacific currents dump an ocean of snow, cutting him off from the outside world for months at a time.

For six months at least, he won’t see another soul. January and February are so dark, bitterly cold and lonely he chokes up just thinking of them. To make it through, he’s learned to save dried berries – “to taste summer in a cup of tea.” And to keep busy.

At first light every morning, he shovels a path around his cabin all the way to the bridge over the Cayoosh; it can take hours to clear the route.

His solitude finally lifts with the first muds of spring: Every May 4, on the anniversary of the founding of the resistance camp, a group of supporters visit bringing fresh supplies; it’s his favourite day of the year, he says, “because I’m not alone.”

“The elders warned me that I wouldn’t see my family. That I would be alone. That it would rough and hard. They were right. No relatives of mine comes to check on me. I feel the loneliness deep in my heart.”

Banishment is among the oldest and most brutal means of punishment. Prisoners call solitary confinement “living death” and liken it to being buried alive. But Hubie isn’t being punished. This is not a shunning. He is not a hermit, nor a survivalist, nor a hippie, nor an outcast. Life would easier for him if he were a recluse. But he yearns for human contact and affection.

“I made myself a prisoner here,” he says. “I don’t know my own family any more. It’s a job I wouldn’t wish on anybody.”

“Then again, I’m never really alone – the animals are my best friends,” he says as dawn breaks over the mountain, his faithful, 13-year-old mutt still snoring loudly. The dog was a gift from a community member and has been with him since he was a six-week-old pup. The area is key habitat for grizzly bears, wolverines and mountain goats. “I am able to walk among them because they know I’m here to protect them and the mountain.”

He has come to know three generations of the same family of cougars. As a young cat, one he named Seraphin used to sleep under a shelter in his yard. He says it will occasionally rub up against him like a house cat when he is walking in the forest.

A warbling robin, a frequent visitor, begins carolling outside his window every morning at 3. They chatter back and forth like old pals all day long. When a juvenile black bear comes crashing onto the property, he forgives him for the intrusion as the bear bows his head and turns to leave.

“You get along hummingbirds,” he suddenly shouts as the tiny, frantic birds compete for a feeder hanging from a nearby tree. “Don’t behave like the rest of the world – hostile and greedy.”

The stellar jays, thrush and ptarmigan keep him company through the winter. In summer, he watches over a family of cottontail hare in the yard. With four hens and a rooster named Charlie, “It’s like an Easter egg hunt around here every day.”

“The life I lead is a simple life, but fulfilling,” Hubie says, settling into a wooden bench built for him by a friend as he was dying from AIDS. He spends much of his day on the bench, watching over the land.

Hubie still scampers up the mountain at a sprint carrying a chain saw. But there is no escaping time’s flow. Last year, he was bowled over by a tree he was felling, badly injuring his right knee. He doesn’t have painkillers, and for the first couple weeks it took eight hours to fetch the day’s water and wood, which he did through gritted teeth, dragging his bum leg behind him. His knee still aches constantly and he’s begun to gently sway, like an aging athlete on worn out hips.

His gentle dog, meanwhile, has developed a wheezing cough, a telltale sign of heart failure. Hubie seems to recognize his old pal’s days may be numbered. “I don’t want to lose you yet,” he says, his voice thick with emotion. He wraps the 100-pound dog in a long hug, burying his face in his thick, yellow coat.

With May behind him, he is unsure when he might next see another person. When he says goodbye to a visiting reporter, his eyes well up with tears. He holds her in a long hug. “Be like that rock in the river,” he says, pointing to a giant boulder poking out of the rushing Cayoosh. “Don’t let anything stick to you.” Then he slowly turns and begins walking back to the house that only ever waits for him.


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