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Chief Kim Baird elected Chief of the Tsawwassen First Nation January 9, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Chief Kim Baird elected Chief of the Tsawwassen First Nation January 9, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Tsawwassen band paves way for controversial mini-metropolis near Delta Add to ...

It was rightly hailed as Canada’s first urban treaty, a precedent-setting attempt to thrust a land settlement, coupled with new native powers, into the midst of an apprehensive municipality.

With their previous, skimpy land base more than doubled by the deal, the Tsawwassen First Nation vowed to forge a bold economic future for its 430 members.

And the change is coming, soon to transform a place that, on a raw, overcast day nearly two years after the landmark pact took effect, retained a deceptive calm. Herons flew low over the barren, salt marshes. Eagles perched imposingly in the tops of denuded trees, and only the occasional slam of a car door disrupted the intense silence.

This age-old peace and quiet are about to end. In just a few years, huge chunks of TFN’s expanded territory, much of it farmland, will be paved over and transformed into a bustling mini-metropolis, complete with subdivisions, an industrial park and the second largest shopping mall complex in the province. Parts of the project are scheduled for completion by 2015.

The old ways are over. Welcome to the brave new world of natives doing things on their own.

For many outsiders, particularly those in neighbouring Delta, which takes pride in its rural character, the TFN’s ambitious plans are a shock. Particularly upsetting is the use of land that had been in the province’s cherished Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) for a pair of high-end megamalls.

“This is urban sprawl,” said local independent MLA Vicki Huntington. “They will be paving over some of the best soil in the country for residential and commercial development, and that’s what hurts.”

The Tsawwassen are unapologetic.

Over the years, they could only watch as their reserve was hemmed in by a busy ferry terminal, a coal port and the growing municipality of Delta.

Now, it’s their turn. Non-natives may fume, but they are the ones sitting on the sidelines, and development is the name of the game.

Kim Baird, the 41-year-old chief of the TFN and a driving force behind the treaty, says there’s no turning back.

“We are no longer a colony. We can make our own decisions,” she declares, from one of the large black chairs where the TFN’s five-member executive council meets. “We can enjoy what other communities have had the ability to do for the past century or so, right? We are a player.”

Suddenly, the TFN has all the powers – and more – of a municipality. Ms. Baird sits on Metro Vancouver’s Board of Directors, along with mayors and other elected representatives of the region.

At the same time, the TFN can proceed to develop major projects on their own, without interference, no matter the impact on their surroundings.

Two private developers have signed on to build single-family units, townhouses and apartments that will ultimately house 4,000 residents. The TFN will be more involved in running its 135-hectare industrial park, designed to complement the nearby Delta super-port.

But the controversial pair of adjoining shopping malls are to be developed by some of the best in the business: Ivanhoé Cambridge, which built popular CrossIron Mills north of Calgary, and the experienced Property Development Group.

Together, their large indoor and smaller outdoor complexes will total 1.8-million square feet, located right along Highway 17 that takes millions of travellers every year to and from the Tsawwassen ferry terminal, 30 kilometres south of Vancouver.

The TFN is counting on revenues, property taxes and jobs from all three developments to bring its members the same economic quality of life as their more prosperous neighbours.

Farmland can’t do that, Ms. Baird contends. “I know what we’re doing isn’t that popular, but that land was the tradeoff to settle our outstanding aboriginal rights.”

She notes that the TFN’s 724 hectares is still a relatively modest slice of land. “Yes, we are planning fairly intensive development, but that’s because we have to make the most of what we have. This is about catch-up. It’s about going from managing poverty to managing wealth.”

Cheering them on is Judith Sayers, a former chief and treaty negotiator for the Hupacasath on Vancouver Island and currently an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria.

“Of course, this will be a huge change to the area, but who’s to say none of it would have happened without the treaty,” Ms. Sayers says. “First nations all around the province are living with these kinds of changes right now. The Tsawwassen are simply stepping into the game with everyone else and trying to regain what they’ve lost over the last 200 years. It’s a new power relationship, and I think it’s great.”

Ms. Huntington, the independent MLA, admits she’s conflicted over the TFN blueprint for prosperity.

“They’re making their own decisions about what to do with their land, and it’s hard not to say, ‘Good on you.’ But this is a land-use plan that was thrust upon a region that had no say, that doesn’t have the infrastructure in place to handle everything,” Ms. Huntington says. “It’s going to change the face of the agricultural community forever, and there’s nothing we can do.”

Delta’s veteran mayor, Lois Jackson, initially opposed the treaty. Since then, she has accepted reality and works closely with the TFN to be a good neighbour.

“We can’t go back to the way it was,” Ms. Jackson says. “They have the right to be there, a right to go forward. So we have a new neighbour that is starting with almost a blank slate, and we wish them well.”

As for Ms. Baird, these are heady times. The many firsts and the many economic balls in the air often keep her up at night, she confesses. “But we’ve waited more than a century to participate in the economy, and these are all good problems to have.”

She can also take solace from her great-grandfather, Tsawwassen chief Harry Joe. He made the band’s first official plea to government for more land. The date was 1914.

“I found it comforting when I learned that he had done the same thing as me, all those years ago,” Ms. Baird says. “It’s cool.”

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