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Tsawwassen chief welcomes election challenge – just not yet

Chief Kim Baird of the Tsawwassen First Nation January 9, 2012. 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.

JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

Chief Kim Baird has one of the highest profiles of any native leader in British Columbia, perhaps Canada.

The recipient of many awards, including an honorary degree from Simon Fraser University this fall, Ms. Baird spearheaded the signing of the first modern urban treaty in the country. She is now presiding over huge shopping mall and housing developments that will transform the Tsawwassen First Nation into a bustling, mini-metropolis.

But Wednesday, the outspoken, long-serving chief faces a critical challenge to her continued leadership, as TFN members vote in a new government.

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Bryce Williams, the youngest member of the TFN's five-member executive, is running against Ms. Baird, her first electoral opposition since the landmark Tsawwassen treaty came into effect more than three years ago.

Mr. Williams, a native artist and woodcarver in his early 20s, could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but Ms. Baird was quick to acknowledge his leadership potential. After all, she was an upstart herself when she was elected chief for the first time more than 13 years ago at the age of 28. Now, about to turn 42, she's the veteran, her opponent the youthful aspirant.

"He's been encouraged for a long time to develop a leadership capacity, which is why he ran for [office] at such a young age," Ms. Baird said in an interview. "In some ways, I'm happy that people are thinking about leadership roles. I do need a successor, no doubt about it … and he's got lots of leadership potential. I just don't think now is the time."

There are simply too many multimillion-dollar projects in the works, Ms. Baird said. Construction began this summer on the first of what will be a series of subdivisions to accommodate 4,000 new residents, while deals have been signed for two major shopping malls, one of which will be the size of Burnaby's Metrotown. The retail complexes are due to be completed in 2015.

"I think my main message is that we are at a crucial time, with many major initiatives … and I've got the most experience to finish the job," Ms. Baird said. "It won't be as tough in the future, but right now the job of chief is probably the toughest it's ever been."

She agreed the pace of change may be exhausting to many TFN members. "People are impatient, that's for sure, myself included. We're three years in, and we're working fast, but these things take time."

Ms. Baird said she doesn't know what to expect from Wednesday's election. No major issue has emerged, there have been no direct attacks against her leadership, and a local referendum on the shopping mall projects produced a 96-per-cent vote in favour, she said.

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"In theory, I should be okay, but you never know."

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