In the days when Ernie Campbell was growing up, and years before that, the Musqueam Indian Reserve was one of the best-kept secrets in Vancouver. Tucked behind bush and forest in the city’s otherwise posh southwest enclave, the reserve was still without electricity, indoor running water and paved streets into the 1950s. With their children shunted off to residential school, it was a struggle for the Musqueam to retain any of their rich culture in the shadow of the large metropolis looming over them.
“We were so secluded, like we were just dropped here,” says Mr. Campbell’s sister, Darlene Point. “I would tell non-natives where we were, and they would be shocked to find out a reserve was there.”
Today, no one needs to be told of the community’s existence. The Musqueam are no longer an afterthought. They have become a First Nations powerhouse, cutting deals with governments, municipalities and developers worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Rarely does anything significant take place on their traditional territory, including the 2010 Winter Olympics, without their nod and involvement.
While a number of far-sighted leaders presided over this dramatic sea change, no Musqueam stood taller and longer than Chief Ernie Campbell.
Mr. Campbell was chief of the Musqueam for 20 years, the last 14 in a string of seven, pivotal two-year terms that ended only with his retirement in 2012. His unexpected death at 72 from diabetes complications on Oct. 26 stunned and saddened the reserve, whose 1,200 members could be forgiven for thinking their long-time chief invincible.
Over more than four decades, whether running for chief or councillor, he never lost an election, a feat almost unheard of in the rough and tumble world of local native politics. Nor did he lose many other battles, whether in the boxing rings of his youth, on the waters where he skippered his beloved, 11-man Musqueam war canoe to victory after victory, or at the negotiating table. Backing down was not part of his nature.
“He knew exactly what he wanted,” says Eric Denhoff, a former B.C. deputy minister of aboriginal affairs. “His approach was: This is what we want to do, this is why and here is what we need from you. He was a very tough negotiator, always looking three or four steps ahead.”
During Mr. Campbell’s later years as chief, the Musqueam pursued and concluded a dizzying series of lucrative real estate deals. They acquired title to the popular University of British Columbia golf course, plus another 22 hectares nearby; swapped claims to a chunk of land in nearby Richmond for an office tower in Burnaby; signed off on ambitious reserve housing projects with the likes of Vancouver Canucks co-owner and millionaire developer Francesco Aquilini; and parlayed their official Olympic partnership into tens of millions of dollars, plus a new community centre.
Musqueam councillor Wade Grant says Mr. Campbell was spurred by a desire to benefit future generations for years to come. “He would tell us: ‘This is all so my children’s children won’t have to bang the table any more.’”
Yet despite these eye-popping transactions, perhaps no achievement gave Mr. Campbell more satisfaction than a modest breakthrough late in his final term, when he stood firm with protesters blocking a proposed condominium project over a Musqueam midden close to the Fraser River. While still chief, Mr. Campbell brokered the purchase of the site, assisted by $4.8-million in provincial funds.
It was the measure of the man. Throughout his life, Mr. Campbell was resolute in his determination to see the Musqueam reassert their place in society and press their title to traditional territory that had been gobbled up by urban expansion.
That meant battling in the courts, too. According to lawyer Marvin Storrow, the Musqueam were responsible for three of the most important 15 aboriginal legal cases decided by the Supreme Court of Canada. “We have been here for 9,000 years, and we’re not going anywhere,” Mr. Campbell liked to say.