First Nations call the shots in real estate negotiations

Being paid millions of dollars a year for a vacant site and locking up prime development land with no money down reveal a savvy side to Indigenous land transactions in Metro Vancouver

Western Investor
October 17, 2019

First Nations Point Grey
Three First Nations jointly own 90 acres of development land in Vancouver’s prestigious Point Grey neighbourhood. | Vancouver Courier

There is no doubt that B.C. Indigenous people lost out in a big way when their land was being appropriated by the first European settlers. But it seems today’s First Nations are masters of real estate negotiation, at least in Metro Vancouver, where they now hold some of the most prized residential and commercial land in the region and are being paid millions of dollars annually for a vacant waterfront site.

In Vancouver, the Musqueam Indian Band, Tsleil-Waututh Nation and the Squamish Nation formed a development arm, MST Development Corp., after the trio purchased two parcels comprising more than 90 acres in Vancouver’s tony Point Grey neighbourhood from the federal and provincial governments. 

In 2014, the bands partnered with Canada Lands Co. (CLC), a federal Crown corporation, to buy 52 acres of the Jericho Lands for $237 million. Two years later, the three nations paid $480 million for 38.8 acres, the remainder of the lands. The province provided the down payment for this transaction, worth in excess of $96 million.

At that time, Squamish Nation Chief Ian Campbell told band members that, under the deal, the three nations would put up no cash. He said a seven-year vendor take-back mortgage arrangement with the provincial government would mean the accommodation payment would total roughly 30 per cent of the $480 million purchase price.

Currently, the MST partnership owns or controls about 160 acres of developable land in Metro Vancouver. As well as the Jericho site, this includes the Marine Drive lands in West Vancouver and the 21-acre Heather Street lands in Vancouver, which is co-owned with CLC. In a co-ownership with the Aquilini Investment Group, MST also holds a former liquor distribution branch site in East Vancouver and the 40-acre Willingdon Lands in Burnaby, both bought from the provincial government.

The Jericho Lands are the prize property and MST Development, CLC and the City of Vancouver held public open houses in Vancouver in March to discuss plans for the site.

So far, details are vague, but the open house was the start of a roughly two-year process that will produce a policy statement dealing with a range of issues including height, density, design, transportation and reconciliation. As Jericho is jointly owned by the MST and CLC, this policy statement will need approval from Vancouver City Council.

Unique to developers in B.C., First Nations have the final say on what is built on their land.

“The Squamish Nation would not be required to apply to the city to redevelop this area. The city does not have regulatory authority over First Nations development proposals on their lands but we do co-ordinate with them extensively,” said Ellise Lambert, communications manager for the City of Vancouver.

“Jericho Lands is a good example of where we have been collaborating closely.”

Perhaps more controversial is a plan from the Squamish Nation to develop up to 3,000 residential units on an 11-acre site it owns at at the south end of the Burrard Street Bridge in Vancouver.

Waterfront lease

Meanwhile, a legal fight is on between the Squamish Nation and the federal government over lease payments in a deal signed 45 years ago, which sees the government paying around $13 million in rent every year for a piece of vacant land on the West Vancouver waterfront.

The Squamish Nation filed a petition in BC Supreme Court against the attorney general of Canada in August, after Canada and the First Nation disagreed on how much rent should be paid for the land.

Squamish Nation Land
For 45 years the federal government has been paying about $13 million a year to the Squamish Nation for a vacant parcel of land. | Government of Canada

According to court documents, the Squamish Nation wants the annual lease payments from the government set at $29.5 million a year for the next five years. 

The federal government has said it should be required to pay only $11 million annually.

The legal fight concerns a 71-year lease signed by the federal government in 1974 for 55 acres of the Squamish Nation’s Capilano Reserve on the West Vancouver waterfront. The federal government has continued to pay rent on the land at about $13 million annually, but has never used it.

According to the legal documents filed by the Squamish, Ottawa will continue to pay the annual rent at the previous rate set for 2014 to 2019, “a difference of over $16 million per year.”

In an emailed statement to the North Shore News, Environment Canada declined to comment further

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