Walking along the base of the Burrard Street Bridge that crosses Vancouver’s False Creek toward the downtown core, Khelsilem gestures across a gravel lot poised to become one of the largest Indigenous urban developments in Canada.
The Squamish Nation councillor, who also goes by the name Dustin Rivers, is standing on a pinched triangle of reserve land near the city’s centre that the First Nation won back in 2002 after decades of legal battles.
The project is in its very early stages but if all goes as planned, the Squamish Nation will build about 3,000 housing units in a project that promises to answer some of the region’s urgent housing needs at the same time that it presents a test of reconciliation.
“For a lot of other First Nations across the country, natural resources is the one option they have for growing their economies. Whereas for us, the land has been completely impacted (by the city’s growth) and so real estate is really the one thing we can get involved in that will make sense to generate revenue,” he said.
The same site was home to members of the Squamish Nation for thousands of years before villagers were illegally forced to accept a settlement and shipped on barges to less desirable land along Howe Sound in 1913. It had been declared a reserve in the late-1800s but was gradually fragmented by leases and dissected by railway lines. By 1965, the entire 32-odd hectares of reserve had been sold off.
But in 2002, the Squamish regained a small section of the earlier reserve: today’s Kitsilano Indian Reserve No. 6.
The idea to build two towers on the site gained some steam in 2009 and 2010 but was abandoned in the economic downturn.
Now, Khelsilem said, members are keen to see the First Nation use the land for economic development.
“They’re seeing the significant profits that everyone else is making. We’re right in the middle and we’re not doing anything, so I think there’s reasonable impatience that we should be getting involved,” he said.
The First Nation is in negotiations with one developer after gathering pitches through a request for proposals. At this stage, it’s looking at primarily rental housing with potential for some affordable units for Squamish members. Of the nation’s 4,000-odd members, about 1,100 are on a waiting list for housing, he said.
For Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, the development offers an answer to one of the city’s biggest problems.
“The city is in the middle of a housing crisis, especially when it comes to rentals,” Stewart said, calling the preliminary figure of 3,000 housing units “fantastic.”
That’s not an insignificant number for a city that has approved 8,680 purpose-built market rental units over the past 10 years.
Stewart also sees it as an expression of reconciliation, acknowledging that if residents oppose the project there are few ways to fight it because the development is on Squamish land and outside the city’s jurisdiction.
“The shoe’s on the other foot and there’s really not a lot of need for Squamish to consult with the local community,” he said.
Despite that, Stewart said the First Nation has kept him in the loop on its plans since early this year. The relationship Stewart and the First Nation built as allies against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion has helped.
“The thing about reconciliation is you don’t really know what it looks like until you’re in the middle of it. So I think this will set some parameters as to what us, Vancouver, being a city of reconciliation, looks like. I’m very keen to make sure this has the best chance of success.”
The Kitsilano neighbourhood is facing forces that could change its character on several fronts. The beachside community of largely single-family residences has historically opposed development on a much smaller scale, including two recent five- and six-storey buildings planned further west.
But densification appears inevitable, especially along a SkyTrain line planned several blocks south.
“There have been some developments on a smaller scale that have been getting some opposition, there’s no question about that,” said Larry Benge, co-chair of the Coalition of Vancouver Neighbourhoods.
For his part, Benge said he recognizes the neighbourhood has no legal say in the matter but wants to let the Squamish Nation know that neighbouring associations are available and interested in participating in engagement.
Until more details are released, he said he’s taking an optimistic view of the project.
“I don’t want to build into this development a whole slew of, ‘Oh my gosh, what if this happens, isn’t this going to be awful.’ We should instead be looking at, ‘This is a wonderful opportunity for something that could be very positive for everyone involved,’ ” Benge said.
Khelsilem said the First Nation plans to communicate with residents, adding it could make the project stronger by raising questions that the designer or developer hadn’t considered.
It’s not the first Squamish development, nor the first urban Indigenous development.
The MST Development Corp. is a partnership between the Musqueam Indian Band, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. The three bands are full or co-owners of six prime properties throughout Metro Vancouver, covering more than 65 hectares of land available for development valued at over $1 billion.
Among its largest developments, the corporation is beginning consultations on the 36-hectare Jericho lands in West Point Grey.
The Musqueam are also planning a 1,250-unit, mixed-use development near the University of British Columbia and the Squamish act as landlords to the Park Royal shopping centre on its reserve land in West Vancouver.
Khelsilem said the Park Royal project has provided income that the First Nation can use toward other things, like housing, and the Burrard project is expected to be a similar “money tree” on a much larger scale.
The next step will be putting things like the land designation amendment and business terms before Squamish members in a referendum.
“This project we’re looking at is much more substantial and significant,” he said.
“We want to bring our people home, we want to build more housing for them, we need to create some economic development to pay for it and this is the first step in that.”
Amy Smart, The Canadian Press