No room for the view -

No room for the view

The Squamish Nation plan a condo project that flouts Vancouver’s rules


Photograph by Nick Westover

It’s just steps from Granville Island and Kitsilano Beach, and with to-die-for views of English Bay and the snow-tipped North Shore mountains, this 10-acre site at the south end of the Burrard Bridge—among the last open stretches of undeveloped city waterfront—may be the Lower Mainland’s hottest empty lot. Empty except for a totem pole and a thick tangle of blackberry bushes, the site belongs to the Squamish Nation.

And it will soon play host to a massive new real-estate development: a $1-billion, two-tower, mixed-use job that will, according to early drawings, block the city’s carefully preserved ocean and mountain views and dramatically densify sleepy Kitsilano.

The Squamish Nation is a growing local powerhouse, drawing most of its $60-million annual income from its marinas and construction business and 70 leaseholds, including a golf course and a mega-mall. It’s behind a tony new housing project in Howe Sound. Last month, its 3,600 members voted nine-to-one to develop a vacant Squamish site on the Sunshine Coast. These projects, however, pale in comparison to the crown jewel: that Kitsilano project, which is drawing quiet criticism in Vancouver. It’s not just the views. So far, the public amenities—parks, art galleries and schools—required of all new city developments of its scope are absent from its design. That’s because none of Vancouver’s celebrated design principles apply on native land.

It won’t be the first time the exemption has touched a nerve. A month ahead of the Olympics, the Squamish erected a series of 300-sq.-foot digital billboards, a move met with visceral anger in metro Vancouver, home to some of Canada’s tightest advertising laws and a citizenry practically cultish about the views. Even bus-stop ads are banned from West Vancouver. On their land, First Nations are not bound by municipal rules. Sweet justice, perhaps; on their land, past B.C. governments so rarely played by the rules.

The lot was once a Coast Salish trading hub and a major Squamish village, rich with elk, bog cranberries, wild rice, sturgeon and oolichan, says hereditary chief Ian Campbell, 37, who was recently re-elected to a second term on council. But in 1913, inhabitants were barged to the North Shore, their new home. The old one was burned to the ground. In 2002, the B.C. Supreme Court returned a portion, one-eighth the original size. The Squamish are simply using the “best tools available” to flourish once more, says Campbell, trim and tieless, like most local businessmen, noting the absence of a hue and cry surrounding the erection of the new Shangri-La skyscraper, which exceeds Vancouver’s strict height limits. “We aren’t going to ask permission to do business in our own lands.”

Of course, the Shangri-La is sliced diagonally on one side to prevent it from blocking mountain views and was allowed to exceed the height cap in return for public, outdoor art space. And the Squamish have yielded before, scaling back the number of billboards by more than half before the Olympics, and also reducing their size. Recently, the band signed an agreement with Mayor Gregor Robertson, promising regular dialogue over the coming development that will, after all, need sewer and water hookups.

More is at stake than a pair of condo towers. Both the Squamish and the Musqueam Indian Band own jaw-dropping undeveloped city lots. Other bands have dibs on surplus federal lands—old city army barracks and post offices. In fact, with Vancouver’s downtown largely built out, local planning guru Trevor Boddy predicts local First Nations will be the “single-biggest players” in developing the city in the next 10 years. Bit of sweet justice in that, too.


No room for the view

  1. I find it interesting that as soon as First Nations get a leg-up on any level of government there is an outcry against – this has been seen before with farming on the plains, fishing on the coasts etc and now with real estate.
    The First Nations are now developing their land to the greatest economic opportunity for their people and their community. I applaud their efforst and future forecasting.
    It is time for First Nations to be at the wheel of their own land use.

  2. Every Canadian is delighted reading this story. Natives using their reserves to become shrewd businessmen? Natives seeking to maximize profit? Natives shrugging off welfare dependancy on other Canadian citizens and joining the free-market system that has resulted in this country's prosperity?

    Sounds good to me!

  3. I love to read any story that defies the stereotype across Canada that natives live off of taxpayers for grievances that occured so many generations ago. It shows the massive amount of benefits given to treaty individuals is put to good use in more and more cases across Canada as city populations encroach on reserves. Way to go!

    • "…the massive amount of benefits"?

      Sorry Guest, but the "benefits" don't outweight the long-accumulated costs. If it was ever calculated just how much economic benefit has been reaped from Indian lands in the past couple hundred years, the so-called benefits they've received don't come close to cutting it. Add to that the significant pyschogical/social damage that will endure for generations to come…

      Way to go Squamish First Nation!

      • Just goes to show that people aren't always ruled by their past. You know, they can overcome obstacles before them and grow as a people?

        Way to go Squamish First Nation!

  4. Access to the sites and the supporting infastructure is provided at significant cost by the taxpayers of the City of Vancouver. If the Band is not prepared to work with the City then the City is well within its rights to cutoff any and all supporting infastructure.

  5. Realistic ought to get his facts straight before commenting. In the case of our community, it's the city that's unwilling to cooperate with us not the other way around. People are always saying First Nations need to generate our own revenue and break away from dependency, but when e do they place as many barriers in the way as they can. Including instigating bias in the public perception to turn them against our initiatives.

  6. Probably the best way to make lemonade out of the lemons with which Canada has pelted our First Nations peoples over the generations. So good on them for that. And it beats the gambling and smuggled tobacco and other questionable stuff that goes on in this-isn't-Canada territory across the country.

    But what is bound to help each and every Native the most would be full integration in Canada's political, economic and social fabric. Ditch the reserves, start dealing in private property, start thriving and occasionally failing businesses, and join the rest of us in advancing our society. Why the Native way of life should be some sort of romantic notion that is never allowed to progress is beyond me.

    • myl – thousands of Aboriginals take the risk to start their own businesses each year, as do Native bands. Many are using fee-simple lands (private property). It's slow, but it's sure.

  7. I always admired how the First Nations often did nothing with their land and left it wild. THAT to our future generations
    will be the best gift they could leave as a legacy….green spaces that Europeans did not ruin.
    Sad to hear of this development.

  8. squamish are not squeamish anymore! they determine their own future and fate! hooray for real estate development a definite source of wealth and financial security…

  9. Janice Rose: what risk to Aboriginals? This is all done with the 10 billion+ a year budget from Indian and Northern Affairs. If it doesn't work out, just get another wad of cash from the Feds next year. The real hypocrisy is Aboriginals who blather on about protecting "mother earth" and then get the chain saws out at the first opportunity. I've seen this bad movie a thousand times before from coast to coast. The Chief and a handful of cronies pocket the billions, live in mansions while the rest of the populous continues to live in squalor. I know this is a politically incorrect opinion and I'm sure I will be vilified for speaking the truth. Ce la vie.

  10. I have zero problem with B.C. bands developing their property.

    I have a significant problem with them doing it with little regard for or respect for the rules set for surrounding properties. If the band leadership is smart, they'd be thinking long term and thinking the same way.

  11. One thing that is not mentioned in this story–the land is not irrefutably Squamish land. The village that they were compensated for was a Musqueam village. The men were Squamish, but the women–who invited the men (mostly workers) to stay there–were Musqueam. So yes it's great to see Aboriginal people making their own decisions about their land, but it hurts to know that the Musqueam people are being shafted in their own territory.