The Tsleil-Waututh Nation has made a fortune developing its lands on the north shore of Metro Vancouver, with the urban Indigenous community of 600 people boosting its well-being through a dozen business ventures now worth more than $1-billion.
The nation’s reserve lands are in the heart of North Vancouver, but its traditional territories reach up Burrard Inlet into the mostly undeveloped watershed of the Indian River. The community has played the long game to reclaim its authority here, and this year that work has paid off.
“This is our dream home, right here,” said Chief Jen Thomas, sitting on the edge of an old logging bridge that spans one of the last wild salmon rivers in the Lower Mainland.
Now, a new, unique land-use agreement with the province allows the Tsleil-Waututh, whose archeological record here dates back thousands of years, to shape the future of the watershed.
The 2022 Integrated Stewardship Plan, implemented in April, covers 22,000 hectares of temperate rainforest just 30 kilometres northeast of Vancouver. The plan permits energy projects, logging, mining and tourism – if the Tsleil-Waututh Nation approves. Mostly, however, it is a design for restoring a rich, diverse ecosystem on Metro Vancouver’s doorstep.
“I haven’t really thought about economic development up here, because I would like to just keep it this way,” Chief Thomas said.
The Indian River empties into Burrard Inlet at an estuary that serves as a gateway for this dramatic glacial fjord. A strong paddler can make the trip by canoe from the Tsleil-Waututh’s reserve in North Vancouver to the nation’s former village site in three hours – even today, the main access is by water.
The alternative is a circuitous route through Squamish, then via a rough logging road. This summer, Chief Thomas plans to lead a convoy of trucks to a cabin by the Indian River for a community camping trip, to help families connect with the land. “We’ve only been gathering for the sad times, the funerals, and I wanted to bring the community together for more good times.”
There are no visible traces of the old village site, but signs of commercial logging operations remain, and a hydro transmission line cuts through the valley. The steep mountains have inhibited sprawling development, however, and the valley is home to abundant wildlife, including species at risk such as mountain goats, northern spotted owls and the marbled murrelet.
The nation has been working for decades to reach this agreement. A draft management plan was first signed in 2005. In the meantime, the nation bought out private forestry lands, reintroduced Roosevelt elk and helped salmon stocks rebound. The changes have had cascading effects: Herring have returned to the inlet, and wolves and cougars returned on the heels of the elk. The work continues today, as the nation’s environmental crews carefully extract creosote-soaked pylons where log booms were once moored.
Matt Thomas is the nation’s director of economic development. “We are continuing to grow our assets – we are always hungry to get more land,” he said. “It was a tough battle in the beginning. Our people were saying, ‘Why are you buying land that is ours?’” But with outright ownership of private lands, the nation has been able to improve its members’ standard of living and exert more control over its traditional territories than the slow-moving treaty process could offer.
The national Community Well-Being index, which measures the socioeconomic health of communities by education, labour force activity, income and housing, ranks the Tsleil-Waututh highest of all First Nations in Canada and on par with its non-Indigenous North Vancouver neighbours.
The nation’s wealth also has allowed it to pursue watershed restoration, with cedar and salmon at the forefront.
In the early 1990s, Mr. Thomas, a hunter, was up in the watershed when he came across a logging operation that was about to fell a stand of ancient yellow cedars. The trees are culturally important to coastal First Nations, and the moment would prove pivotal.
“Man, I was devastated,” he recalled. “We put a fight up and said, ‘Hell no, this has to stop.’”
The protest he led would end commercial old-growth logging in the watershed.
The only companies with logging tenures in the watershed today are Indigenous-owned. Jason Forsyth is the CEO of Inlailawatash, a Tsleil-Waututh company that does ecosystem-based forestry. There are an estimated 10,000 hectares of old-growth forests in the watershed, and the land-use plan protects 93 per cent of it. The other 7 per cent is deferred – protected from logging on a temporary basis – and Mr. Forsyth expects that will be permanently protected in the next few years.
“The analysis we did showed there is so little old growth left that would be accessible for timber harvesting. What is left, Tsleil-Waututh said, let’s look at protecting it all.”
Last fall, the B.C. government unveiled a plan to suspend logging in one-third of its rare, old-growth forests considered at a very high risk of irreversible biodiversity loss, and the watershed land-use plan goes further. Josie Osborne, the Minister of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship, said in a statement that the partnership agreement with the Tsleil Waututh is a model for modernized land-use planning.
In their hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ language, the nation is properly known as the səlilwətaɬ, and the watershed is xʔəl̓ ílwətaʔɬ. But just a handful of members can speak the language. Gabriel George has spent years learning hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, to preserve a part of a culture that was close to being lost – a culture closely tied to the land.
There is much archeological study still to be done, but there is evidence the mountain fiord provided both shelter and abundant food.
As such, salmon stewardship is the other key plank in the land-use plan, because salmon are the original source of the Tsleil-Waututh’s wealth. The nation understands the keen interest people from across the Lower Mainland have in recreational activities here, but there have been issues. Last summer, members came across a group of partiers who were running their 4x4 trucks through the shallows of the Indian River while the pink salmon were running.
Destructive visitors are a common problem, but that incident prompted the nation to deactivate some resource roads. It is now working on a plan to enhance monitoring and enforcement for recreational motor vehicles.
Mr. George, looking out across the Indian River, said the intent is not to close the watershed off but to restore and protect it.
“The extraction part of colonization has deeply damaged this area, but when you look at it, it’s still amazing,” he said. “Even though we’re an urban First Nation, this is the heart of our territory. It has the potential, I think, to be a jewel for the whole Lower Mainland.”
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