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For the Tsleil-Waututh, real estate and development on their lands are a lucrative business – one that would be in danger if a pipeline extension goes ahead in their backyard. Here’s how a nation of 500 became the legal and logistical heart of opposition to big oil

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Dennis Thomas, a member of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation in British Columbia, leads elders, councillors, employees and other stakeholders through a tour with the band-owned Takaya Tours company into Burrard Inlet's Indian Arm. The Tsleil-Waututh have been leaders in the legal campaign against the Trans Mountain pipeline extension, which would massively increase tanker traffic around their territory.Ian Willms/The Globe and Mail

The owners of the Trans Mountain pipeline approached the Tsleil-Waututh Nation in the fall of 2011 seeking agreement on expansion plans that would increase the number of oil tankers in the waters at the foot of their reserve. Trans Mountain was approaching a business-savvy community that was acquiring real estate across Metro Vancouver, rural property holdings and logging rights.

But environmentalists concerned about the effects of the project on Metro Vancouver’s waters had already won the Tsleil-Waututh over as allies. And the nation was uniquely positioned to mount a sophisticated and costly campaign against the expansion.

This small Indigenous community of 500 people gained national attention because its members took on big oil, along with the federal and Alberta governments, and stalled Trans Mountain at the federal Court of Appeal. But to conclude that the Tsleil-Waututh is anti-development would be utterly wrong.

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Construction is under way at the Tsleil-Waututh-owned Raven Woods housing development.Ian Willms/The Globe and Mail

The community members were pioneers in real estate development on reserve lands, putting high-end condos and townhouses on a forested section of their land in North Vancouver. Million-dollar homes now line the hill in the Raven Woods development on the North Shore, with priceless views of Burrard Inlet, and crews are working on the next phase.

The development of more than 1,100 homes is a source of wealth for the community, and the biggest names in Vancouver’s real estate marketing and development sector are proudly displayed next to the nation’s real estate arm, Takaya Developments.

The nation has blended a prudent fiscal approach to business with a spiritual commitment to their environment. Even as they seek to kill the pipeline project, they have a representative on an Indigenous advisory committee, alongside pro-pipeline nations, monitoring the construction work that has been done so far.

Charlene Aleck, an elected councillor of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation, heads the Sacred Trust Initiative, which runs the campaign against Trans Mountain’s expansion project. This work is separate from the band’s large and diverse portfolio of economic development initiatives – from archaeology services to a hot-tub distribution deal.

“We are so much more than opposition to a pipeline project," Ms. Aleck said in an interview.

Protecting the nation’s modern-day holdings is the framework for the anti-tanker stand. Industrial development of fossil fuels is not compatible, the Tsleil-Waututh say, with the clean, green development values that make property in Raven Woods so valuable.

Tsleil-Waututh (pronounced Slale Wa-tooth), means “People of the Inlet” in their hunq’umin’um' language. That connection to the marine environment guides their economic development.

Across the inlet from the reserve, smoke billows from the Chevron refinery next to the Trans Mountain marine terminal. “In my time, the smoke stack is always there, part of the landscape,” Ms. Aleck said. "But in my mom’s time, she remembers when you could swim in these waters, and harvest safely.”

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A heron hunts for food on the shore of Cates Park, directly across Burrard Inlet from the Trans Mountain terminal in Burnaby.Ian Willms/The Globe and Mail

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Forests surround the Indian River in Tsleil-Waututh territory. The nation is committed to a green vision of development that they say is not incompatible with industrial fossil-fuel development.Ian Willms/The Globe and Mail

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The nation's holdings include the Takaya Golf Centre, shown here, as well as archaeology services, a hot-tub distribution deal and other initiatives.Ian Willms/The Globe and Mail

Canada’s community well-being index puts the Tsleil-Waututh reserve at the top of the list among aboriginal communities. That’s based on a measure of education, income and health, and those statistics include the band members and residents of the strata units on the reserve.

A new administration office and health centre are under construction, near the community’s solar-powered family and child-care centre. The money from the band’s businesses has also helped restore salmon stock and clam beds, reversing the effects of decades of industrial pollution on Burrard Inlet.

This affluence can be traced to the late 1980s, when then-chief Leonard George decided to develop Raven Woods to help his community achieve economic self-sufficiency.

That early foray provided the income to acquire 315 hectares of forested rural land in the Indian River Watershed. Today, Tsleil-Waututh is an equal partnership owner of more than 80 hectares of property in the Metro Vancouver Area. The urban holdings, shared with two other First Nations, are worth $1.2-billion, according to BC Assessment. The Tsleil-Waututh also have a cultural tourism venture, logging, commercial fisheries and a golf centre.

But when environmental campaigners raised the alarm in 2009 about the number of oil tankers in Burrard Inlet, the payoff of those early investments had not yet materialized.

“When we started, we were still a poor community," said Reuben George, who was the nation’s director of community development at the time. When the pipeline proponents sought in 2011 to discuss an economic benefits package, it was tempting to take them up on it, he said.

"There was a little bit of a debate about taking the money offered by Kinder Morgan – money that could be used to lift our people out of poverty ... We are a small nation and some said, ‘We can’t beat them.’ But we are taught to incorporate our spirituality in everything we do. We are Tsleil-Waututh.”

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'We are taught to incorporate our spirituality in everything we do,' Reuben George says of the Tsleil-Waututh.Ian Willms/The Globe and Mail

Rex Weyler, a co-founder of Greenpeace International, helped bring the Tsleil-Waututh into the fight against the pipeline. He got in touch with Mr. George, who agreed to raise the issue with his community. But there were conditions: The environmental groups had to follow the lead of the Indigenous people, and accept that this would be a spiritual undertaking.

“We agreed to both requests, and forged an alliance,” Mr. Weyler said. In the year that came after, he and his fellow campaigners attended sweat lodges and prayed with the Tsleil-Waututh.

“For some in the environmental movement, this may have felt like a slow pace, but we learned to trust the style of our Indigenous friends," he said.

The unanimous decision to formally join the fight was made at a community meeting, where the elders called on their people to “warrior up.”

"Then, we went to legal,” Mr. George said. While lawyers mapped out a challenge that led to the successful Court of Appeal ruling in August, the nation also commissioned its own economic assessments, oil spill studies and other technical reports.

When Trans Mountain officials tried to get the Tsleil-Waututh to begin negotiations on the expansion, they were met by experienced lawyers. Court documents show more than 100 calls and letters between the two sides over the next two years, including outreach by Ian Anderson, the president and chief executive of Trans Mountain, but there would be no face-to-face talks.

In 2012, the company formally applied under the nation’s stewardship process to have the community consider its project. The Tsleil-Waututh sent the $250 application fee back: The path to economic self-sufficiency the late Leonard George had put them on meant they did not have to compromise with an oil company.

“Early on, I was asked, where will we find the resources to fight this? We are up against a ginormous project and the federal government," Ms. Aleck said. "I said, I am Tsleil-Waututh and I am a granddaughter of the water.” That kinship comes with a responsibility to the sea’s creatures, from the salmon to the killer whale. “Those connections don’t have a price tag.”

In depth: The view from Tsleil-Waututh territory

  • Sept. 21: Tsleil-Waututh elders, councillors, employees and other stakeholders take a tour with the band-owned Takaya Tours company into Indian Arm.Ian Willms/The Globe and Mail

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