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The ambitious project next to the Burrard Bridge would occupy the last of the Squamish Nation's reserve land in the city.Rafal Gerszak/For The Globe and Mail

The Squamish Nation plans a massive housing project encompassing as many as 3,000 apartments on prime land next to a Vancouver city park, marking the first large-scale urban development by an Indigenous group in Canada.

The ambitious project next to the Burrard Bridge and Vanier Park on the False Creek waterfront in central Vancouver would occupy the last of their reserve land in the city. It is likely to spark controversy in the tony Kitsilano neighbourhood nearby, where in recent weeks residents have been protesting the development of a couple of low-rise apartment buildings.

Development of so many apartments, which the Squamish are considering restricting to all rental, could help Vancouver alleviate its housing crisis, but the city does not have jurisdiction over the Squamish land.

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As a result, the city will have little legal authority over the project, unlike the relationship the city will have with two other Indigenous-led megaprojects in a more long-term roll out. The Jericho lands in the west and Heather lands in central Vancouver are being developed jointly by the federal government and a consortium of the three local First Nations.

A spokesperson for the City of Vancouver confirmed the city has no zoning or regulatory power over the Squamish proposal, but says it will work with them on services, land use and community context when an application comes in.

Squamish council member Khelsilem, who was authorized to talk about the Squamish project on behalf of the nation, said there have been some informal talks with city officials about the development, but the nation is moving forward with its plans. It has already selected the developer, although Khelsilem would not reveal the company. Nation members are being asked for their approval for the plans in a referendum.

As well, the Squamish has begun talks with the regional district of Metro Vancouver for water and sewer infrastructure.

Khelsilem said his nation wants to do something that benefits Vancouver, but also its 4,000 members. Income or profits will be used to provide Squamish members with needed social services, including housing.

He said the development is also the nation’s chance to radically alter the story about the place the Squamish traditionally called Senakw and about the sliver of land the nation band was reduced to in Vancouver after decades of expropriation and buyouts that forced them to move out of the city to reserves on the North Shore.

“It feels like the beginning of a new era. We want to make a mark of who we are in nation-building,” said the 29-year-old councillor.

Squamish people were affected when their land base in Vancouver – which originally included all of Vanier Park, as well as the land under the Canadian Forces Seaforth Armoury on Burrard – was reduced, affecting their ability to support themselves, he said. For years, people have waited for government assistance to become more self-sufficient. Now, they won’t have to wait.

“This project becomes a way to create that individual and collective wealth,” Khelselim said.

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The land is likely worth millions of dollars and with a completed development of 3,000 units, hundreds of millions of dollars.

Khelselim said the initial reaction he’s heard from Squamish members is mostly positive.

“They see all the development happening around them. They’re saying, ‘We own all this land, we should get in the game.’”

Squamish leaders are favouring the idea of building all rental apartments in the project, he said. That’s not decided, though. The development, which could potentially be almost the same size as the Little Mountain housing site in central Vancouver, would also include commercial spaces, public squares and arts spaces, he said.

Khelselim said the council doesn’t want to name the developer partner yet, but that the company was chosen from five proposals after the nation asked 16 local builders to apply.

He did confirm that the Aquilinis, the powerhouse local family-run developers who have developed strong relationships and built projects for both the Tsleil-waututh and Tsawwassen bands, are not the partners.

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