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

British Columbia's Tsawwassen First Nation's first development project will be a massive exurban shopping mall.

Photo: Nate Berg

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.

The nation has a comprehensive plan in place to develop much of the roughly three square miles it obtained through the treaty process, starting with two commercial developments on about 180 acres of land. One will be a typical outdoor retail development with a few big-box type anchors and some smaller national and local stores – a power center, in industry terms. The other element, to be known as Tsawwassen Mills, will be a roughly 1.2 million square foot indoor shopping mall. Bak says that designs are being drawn up now and the project could begin construction by the end of the year. Shoppers could be strolling in the mall as soon as 2015.

The project represents the first major economic opportunity for the Tsawwassen First Nation. But for the massive parcel's neighbors, it’s not exactly a dream project.

“I’m not real happy about it,” says Ian Paton, a city councilor in the neighboring town of Delta. “But having said, that there’s not much I can do about it because it’s a done deal.”

Paton says the project will replace high-end agricultural land with more shopping centers that the area doesn’t need.

“We have kind of a village-like atmosphere. And we’ve been able, as a municipal government, to basically do our regional planning to keep out all the big box stores and all the malls, which I think people are pretty happy with,” Paton says. “Suddenly, after all these years of trying to keep the village atmosphere, out of the blue, it’s like whether the people of Delta want it or not, guess they’re going to put in a huge shopping mall.”

He argues that a huge shopping mall is not what the area needs.

“We have so much retail shopping in metro Vancouver now, it’s just ridiculous,” Paton says. “Everywhere you go in municipalities next to us, that’s all you see is more and more retail shopping going up. We’ve got all the shopping we need if we just drive 10 minutes over to Richmond or Surrey.”

The proposed shopping mall is just one part of the nation’s larger comprehensive plan, which also includes a few thousand units of housing, a business park and more industrial lands to augment the nearby port. The project has received criticism as encouraging more sprawl in this exurban part of greater Vancouver, about an hour by train and bus from the city’s downtown. And, as Paton says, a shopping mall in a rural agricultural area seems a bit out of place.

“I always thought the aboriginals were really into the earth, the environment, protecting environmentally sensitive areas,” says Paton. “All of a sudden they want to put a mall on top of prime farmland?”

But Bak argues that the project’s potential for economic development is paramount, especially for a community that had been prevented from enjoying this level of economic activity. And while the Tsawwassen First Nation is trying to build a project that’s economically successful, Bak says they’re also trying to fit themselves into an area over which they had no control for so long.

“Those communities have been developed for a long, long time, they’ve had their plans set up for a long, long time. And we’re new to the table,” says Bak. “We didn’t have any input into those processes, but now we’re at a point where we have to marry what we’re doing with what’s going on around us.”

Whether neighbors in Delta like what’s on the drawing boards or not, those plans are highly likely to become reality in the very near future. They’ll have to deal with the fact that they’ll have limited if any input into what the Tsawwassen First Nation will be able to build. And as more treaties are enacted, so will other communities across Canada.

“The adjoining municipality has had a very conservative growth strategy,” says Bak. “Ours is more aggressive.”

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.