As Canada's First Nations Start Developing Their Land, Is Sprawl Inevitable?

February 9, 2012
How Canadian First Nations gaining development rights may impact the country's suburban landscape.

The temperature’s dipping toward zero on the Celsius side and the fog is settling down to the ground in the vast rural area of Tsawwassen, British Columbia, about 20 miles south of Vancouver, close to the edge of the Strait of Georgia.

In a few directions, farmland is all that can be seen. In others, the signs of residential life so typical in these exurban types of areas: neighborhoods in the distance and promotional signs for the sales center of a new housing and golf course community. Standing on the corner of Highway 17 and 52nd Street, alone but for the stream of cars zooming by, it’s hard to imagine the dramatically different future that is coming to this place. One day soon, instead of huge stretches of farmland, this corner will be home to nearly 2 million square feet of retail space, concentrated in a shopping center and an indoor mall. If plans move forward as expected, by 2015 these cars speeding past this corner on Highway 17 could be driving to it instead.

And those plans are likely to move forward mainly because of who’s pushing them: The Tsawwassen First Nation, one of the roughly 630 bands of aboriginal people in Canada. In a historic treaty enacted in 2009, the Canadian government’s stewardship of the Tsawwassen First Nation came to an end, establishing it as its own government. Along with that treaty, the 400-member Tsawwassen First Nation has been granted full ownership and development rights over its land – rights it had been denied for hundreds of years.

Now, with those rights in hand, the nation is moving forward with long desired plans to reap some economic development out of what had for so long been an economically fruitless situation.

“The most frustrating thing about being under the Indian Act is you can have aspirations for your community but you might not necessarily be able to ever capitalize on them,” says Andrew Bak, a member of the Tsawwassen First Nation’s legislative assembly. “Some of our members have had economic development aspirations going back 50, 60, 70 years, but we haven’t had the legal framework within which to actually approve projects or to partner strategically with municipalities or service providers or utilities or anyone else.”

After more than 15 years working out the treaty process with the provincial and federal governments, the nation is now ready to make those partnerships, and has struck a deal with developers Ivanhoe Cambridge and Property Development Group to begin.