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TFN mega-mall tip of iceberg of aboriginal development

Artist
Artist's rendering of Tsawwassen First Nation development plan, featuring 1.8 million square feet of retail shopping, housing for 4,000 residents and industry.
— image credit: TFN

The Tsawwassen First Nation's decision to build a huge shopping district rivalling Metrotown on its treaty land near the ferry terminal captured the public spotlight last month.

But it may be just the tip of the iceberg of land-use upheavals that are to come as more urban First Nations either sign new treaties or, increasingly, pursue business ventures on their reserves without treaties.

"It's going to be very, very interesting," predicts Maple Ridge Mayor Ernie Daykin, the chair of Metro Vancouver's newly created aboriginal affairs committee.

Metro and its member cities worry in part that an aboriginal building boom may run contrary to regional goals and compound sprawl, traffic and other challenges.

"We've worked hard to come up with a Regional Growth Strategy that respects what we want the region to be," Daykin said, adding he hopes First Nations strive to respect the Metro vision for compact development that preserves livability.

It is a balancing act, he concedes.

"How do we make it work in a positive way, instead of expending a whole bunch of energy stomping our feet and saying we don't want something to happen?"

Cities and civic leaders want to support neighbouring First Nations in their aim of becoming economically self-sufficient and ending decades of government dependency.Maple Ridge Mayor Ernie Daykin

That means mayors like Daykin must be diplomatic in fostering positive relations with aboriginal neighbours, while defending civic interests.

Daykin had to apologetically tell the Katzie First Nation when his council recently voted to oppose the band's plan for a lucrative gravel mine on Blue Mountain, citing concerns about truck traffic, slope stability and recreational access.

There are differing legal views on whether the band can still mine gravel on the Crown land site within the municipality over council's objection.

And that's without a treaty that could confer much stronger powers, like those of the Tsawwassen First Nation (TFN).

Daykin notes the Katzie, whose traditional territory is centred on Pitt Meadows, and the Tsleil Waututh, who have reserves in North Vancouver and along Indian Arm, are the next local bands that are closest to treaties, currently negotiating agreements-in-principle.

Metro and its member cities can try to shape future treaties by advising the provincial negotiators of local or regional concerns.

But Daykin noted affected cities don't know exactly what may be on the table if treaties are struck in those areas.

"How much influence we can have on that, I'm not sure," he said. "The province's goals or objectives may not be in alignment with the regional goals. They may view that a greater good overrides some of a local municipality's concerns."

On the North Shore, the Squamish Nation is on a different path, pursuing development on reserves in West Vancouver without a treaty.

Federal legislation in recent years gave aboriginal bands much greater scope to pursue commercial and industrial development on reserve.

Up to 30,000 non-aboriginal residents could move into condos the Squamish plan to build on reserve land near Park Royal.

In Maple Ridge, the Kwantlen First Nation also has plans to build on its reserves, with up to 400,000 square feet of commercial space planned, along with housing.

The issue for cities is whether new band-owned real estate projects will contribute a fair share of the services tenants will use.

Daykin said cities want contributions for not just "hard services" like sewer and water but also softer ones like recreation centres and libraries. Without equitable agreements, taxpayers elsewhere would subsidize residents on reserve.

First Nations projects on reserve may not have to pay property tax to TransLink or Metro Vancouver either.

Another concern red-flagged by Metro is whether areas now considered public land – parks, green space and the like – might end up in First Nations hands for development through either new treaties or other deals with the province.

That already happened in 2008 when the province expropriated 22 hectares of Pacific Spirit Regional Park from Metro Vancouver and handed it over to the Musqueam band to settle a court dispute.

Metro officials fought the $200-million land transfer in court but lost and the band plans to build housing there.

After the loss, regional district officials called it a dangerous precedent that may allow the province to trade away more regional or civic parks in First Nations negotiations.

At the Tsawwassen First Nation, Chief Kim Baird shakes her head at the media and public interest sparked by the proposed TFN development.

"Has no one ever seen a shopping mall before?" Baird marvelled.

Some critics argue a project that size – twin malls with a combined 1.8 million square feet of commercial floor space – will send shockwaves across the retail landscape in south Delta and beyond.Tsawwassen First Nation Chief Kim Baird

But it also hits other hot buttons.

The project will pave over farmland that the province removed from the Agricultural Land Reserve as a condition of the 2009 treaty.

And the TFN did not have to obey Metro's Regional Growth Strategy – its planned residential, commercial and industrial zones for development were deemed to comply.

"We can't fix poor suburban planning of yesteryear," Baird counters. "We're trying to do the best we can within our own footprint."

She and other First Nations leaders contend it is not their fault the Lower Mainland was heavily developed by non-natives and that their people are only now getting a chance to profit from what remains of their own lands.

Intensive use of TFN land makes more sense than lower-density development, she added, because it may actually ease pressure to develop farmland elsewhere.

The TFN plan calls for not just retail space but nearly 1,700 housing units and a 135-hectare industrial park, much of it geared to port-related use. It also contemplates hosting a Metro Vancouver waste-to-energy plant.

Baird said the combination of industrial and retail jobs, housing and shopping will offer a compact livable community for residents who move there.

The TFN and Metro have yet to strike an agreement to provide sewer servicing to the project, although discussions are expected to resume soon.

Baird doesn't expect difficulty.

But she said Metro's relationship is poor with other First Nations in the region.

She's also disappointed with what she suggests is a disrespectful tone of critics who do not yet seem to understand the status won by the TFN through their treaty.

"This should be framed like an argument between Vancouver and Burnaby or Delta and Surrey," Baird said. "People don't get that we're pretty much a municipality now."

Like other mayors, Baird has a seat and a vote at the Metro board and on the TransLink Mayors Council.

But unlike local cities, which are legal creations of the provincial government and can be stripped of their lands and powers at any time, the Tsawwassen treaty lands and rights are constitutionally protected.

For that reason, Daykin said, there's little point complaining about the loss of farmland or other impacts of the TFN treaty at this point.

"This is what was negotiated in the treaty agreement," he said. "Can we change that? No. It's a done deal."

Despite the potential road bumps ahead, Daykin said he's convinced the region can "move forward" with local First Nations.

"The glass is definitely half full for me."

Twitter: @jeffnagel

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