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First Nations are now elite Vancouver developers

Three Nations own six prime real estate properties in Metro Vancouver totalling 160 acres where they plan thousands of new high-rise homes on leased land

A major new high-rise development in Vancouver to be built on Squamish Nation reserve land was front page news this week, with the signing of a services agreement between the Squamish and City of Vancouver.

But the Squamish Nations’ 11-tower, 6,000-unit Senakw project at the foot of Burrard Street Bridge isn’t the only major residential project being developed by First Nations in Metro Vancouver.

The Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish nations have become major players in real estate development, thanks to a protocol agreement they signed in 2014 to cooperate on land acquisitions and partnerships that they have struck with major developers, like the Aquilini and Westbank groups. The partnerships were highlighted May 27 at the Indigenous Partnerships Success Showcase.

All three First Nations have their own real estate development projects on their own lands, and together, through the MST Development Corp., they co-own land -- acquired through federal land dispositions -- that are also being developed.

In total, MST Development own six prime real estate properties in Metro Vancouver totalling 160 acres.

“The value of our land today, with the holdings that we have, is $5 billion,” said MST Development CEO David Negrin.

The lands for the Senakw project were reclaimed by the Squamish through the courts, whereas the lands acquired by MST Development were acquired through federal land dispositions.

The Senakw lands were formerly part of the Squamish Nations’ reserve lands, but were expropriated by the provincial government in 1913. After a lengthy court battle, launched in 1977, the Federal Court returned a portion of the land to the Squamish in 2003, and the 10.6- acre former village site was added to the Squamish' reserve lands.

Working with the Westbank Group, the Squamish plan to develop the site into an 11-tower, 6,000-unit residential development.

Because it is reserve land, Vancouver zoning laws don’t apply, though the Squamish do need the city’s cooperation for city services, like sewer and water.

Earlier this week, the City of Vancouver and Squamish concluded a services agreement that gives the project a green light. Construction is expected to begin on the project later this year or early in 2023, said Squamish hereditary Chief Ian Campbell.

“We do have our own internal processes, where we had to do designation voting from our membership to allow the land to be used for long-term lease,” Campbell told BIV News. “So there were some internal mechanisms that the nation had to go through to consult and garner social licence from our members.”

As for the land acquired by MST Development, that was all through federal Crown land dispositions.

When the federal government or a federal Crown corporation decides to sell, transfer or otherwise dispose of Crown land, First Nations have the right of first refusal to buy the lands in their traditional territories.

Because the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh traditionally shared territory, there was the potential for the three nations to compete with each other over federal land dispositions. But in 2014, the three nations signed a protocol agreement with the Canada Lands Company to cooperate on shared land ownership.

The protocol identified core and shared territory and provided a framework for joint ownership of former federal lands.

It’s through this protocol that they obtained the former National Defence Lands known as the Jericho lands in West Point Grey – a 92-acre parcel that the MST plans to develop with mixed commercial and residential use.

That project has gotten pushbank from West Point Grey residents who oppose high density development. But the projects can also be a hard sell within the First Nations communities as well.

Johnna Sparrow, a Musqeam member and adviser for the Aquilini Group, works with her community to explain the benefits of the projects.

"Our job is to help reach the community so the community feels empowered with information and a sense of ownership, and understanding that this is a whole new world that we're experiencing growing pains in," Sparrow said. "The opportunities for our young people now are bigger than they've ever been."

Another major development project is the Heather Lands, a 21-acre site at 33rd and Cambie that was a former RCMP headquarters. That project could see up to 2,300 new homes built.

“A singular nation couldn’t do it because it’s so big,” Dennis Thomas, band councillor for the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation, told BIV News. “So we joined forces. You can have 33 per cent of something, or 100 per cent of nothing.”

Unlike the Squamish Nation’s Senakw project, the lands owned by MST Development are fee-simple land and subject to municipal zoning and official community plans. Earlier this week, the City of Vancouver approved a rezoning for the Heather Lands project.

Negrin said the residential development projects will help address Vancouver’s housing availability and affordability challenges.

“A large portion of our development will be affordable, attainable and workforce housing,” Negrin said.

“We’re in negotiations with the province of British Columbia, the feds and the City of Vancouver to provide workforce housing units for all our children and for people that can’t afford housing in Vancouver. That will be at a 20 to 25 per cent discount of where we are in the market today.”

The WST projects are being developed in partnership with major developers. Negrin said it is important for First Nations that they remain the owners of the land, so deals struck with developers are on a long-term lease basis.

“What we’ve done with partners is we’ve done a 99-year lease, so the land never leaves the nations,” Negrin said. “Any project that we’re doing is free-hold.”

While First Nations have the land, they need developers to provide the capital and expertise in designing and building multi-million developments.

“We’re looking at how we move forward, and it’s through partnerships,” Campbell said. “Many developers…have stepped up to assist us to build that capacity.

“I’m excited to see our young leaders and where they fit into this space, as we move towards procurement opportunities, preconstruction, construction," Campbell said. "These all represent a value chain that is substantive for our collective future.

“Not only that, but we’re also supporting the broader community in looking to rental, as well social housing and market housing, mixed use, which really puts a dent in the affordability of this city.”