The Squamish Nation is planning an enormous rental housing project on central Vancouver land it owns near the Burrard Bridge — and the city will have no legal authority over its development.
The project, which could see as many as 3,000 purpose-built rental units get built on waterfront reserve land next to Vanier Park and just footsteps from Kitsilano, would mark the first large-scale urban development project by an Indigenous group in Canada.
The city has no jurisdiction over the Squamish land, which has seen its boundaries shrink by 85 per cent over 60 years and is likely worth millions of dollars, according to Squamish council member Khelsilem.
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“No other First Nation in Canada has a piece of real estate that is so centrally located to the downtown,” he said. “This is a way for the Squamish Nation to make ourselves self-sufficient economically.”
The councillor said the nation has been waiting for years for governments to address issues within the community, including housing and education, that would benefit from getting some of the money that has flowed through Vancouver real estate.
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“We don’t want to wait around for the federal and provincial governments to do what’s right,” he said. “We think we can do it on our own.”
Khelsilem said the project is still in its early stages, and the plans will be presented to nation members in the months ahead for approval in a referendum. An unknown developer has already been selected, but concept plans have yet to be drawn up.
Various community amenities to be included in the development have also not been determined, and would be part of the consultation process with nation members.
In a statement, the City of Vancouver confirmed the Squamish Nation would not be required to go through city hall to redevelop the area, but was hopeful they would be included in the process.
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“If they do proceed with a project on these lands, we would look forward to continuing our longstanding relationship and work with them to support their integration with the existing community and city service connections,” the city said.
On Thursday, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said there will eventually be a service agreement between the city and the nation regarding policing and community access to service, and it will take diplomacy between the two sides to make the development a reality.
“I’m actually really excited about this project,” Stewart said. “The initial thought that there will be thousands of new rental units on that site is great, because we really need that in our city.”
Khelsilem said the nation has had discussions with the city about how to engage local residents and incorporating their concerns, but argued the project represents a win for the city and its affordable housing initiatives.
“In the last 29 years, just under 4,000 rental units have been built. The Squamish Nation is now proposing to build 3,000,” he said. “So there’s a huge opportunity … for the Squamish Nation to play a huge role in addressing some of the regional issues we’re facing
Larry Benge, co-chair of the West Kitsilano Residents Association, said he’s hopeful the nation is mindful of the impact such a project could have on the community.
“I hope they’ll look at how it will affect the surrounding businesses and neighbourhoods and everything, and at least talk with them and have discussions,” he said Thursday.
The reserve lands once included Vanier Park itself, as well as the entirety of the land that houses the Canadian Forces Seaforth Armoury on Burrard. The land now only includes the armoury’s parking lot.
The land, which was once referred to as Senakw, was reduced through years of expropriation and buyouts that forced the nation members to abandon the land for the North Shore. Years of legal battles finally won back the sliver of land that’s now back in reserve.
Khelsilem said other First Nations in Canada have partnered with developers before on smaller-scale projects, but municipalities have blocked some of those projects from going forward through service agreements.
“I think this is an interesting opportunity to have a larger discussion in the city about reconciliation,” he said, adding the proposal has already seen plenty of support both within and outside the nation.
“We’re interested in doing this in the right way and in a sustainable way.”