It’s that giant auto-dependent single-use shopping complex on the way to the ferries. Over a million square feet of retail sitting on paved-over arable land below sea level on the Pacific Flyway.
The mall was developed by the Tsawwassen First Nation as a consequence of one of the first modern treaties negotiated when Gordon Campbell was Premier – a breakthrough achievement. There is no dispute that the Tsawwassen had the irrefutable right and the economic justification to do what they did. But when those who speak of their deep respect for creation, for the natural world of which they are an indivisible part, then the gap between that spiritual world and the brutal reality of Tswawwassen Mills is just too discordant. So we don’t speak of it.
But there are lessons that would be helpful to discuss as we enter this new era of billion-dollar indigenous real-estate projects – especially Senakw, the latest megaproject to be built on the shores of False Creek and the highest density development anywhere in Canada, packed on to a very constrained site.
Senakw has been framed by the mayor as a “gift to the city” – and in one important way it is: thousands of rental units coming on stream when critically needed, without the constraints of public process or lack of amenity as measured against its predecessors on False Creek . This will, it is hoped, provide more affordability than would otherwise occur, in part by passing costs on to those beyond its borders and into the future.
Senakw, to be clear, is going to be better than Tsawwassen Mills. This is not a spec development on some farmland; it’s a milestone in indigenous relations – where reconciliation and capitalism come together, the Squamish and Westbank as partners, whether around a boardroom table or a drum circle. All parties, including local government, have a stake in its success and acceptance as a project that lives up to the aspirational values of its beneficiaries.
However, as more information becomes evident about density and transportation impacts on its immediate neighbours and the city, as well as the specifics of the relationship with local government (the financing of infrastructure, the provision of amenity, the tax implications), the questions will get tougher and more technical.
There are also other developments immediately adjacent to the Squamish project, notably the Concord Pacific brewery redevelopment, for which Senakw will inevitably be seen as a precedent for what they may be allowed to do and the obligations expected to be met. Will the megaproject standards developed over the last half century continue to apply, or will a new (and lower) bar be set? – a thought that has surely occurred to any developer looking to partner with First Nations.
More answers will be demanded, more process called for, more citizen groups formed – indeed, that’s already started. Soon more mayoral aspirants will speak up as an election looms.
It’s understandable why there’s momentum to get Senakw into construction with enough inertia and support to hush dissent.
But if reconciliation of any kind means being honest and open, to declare interests and be open to accommodation, then this is that time. The best outcome will be if there’s a sense of mutual benefit and an appreciation of past traditions of everyone involved – and that includes what many dismiss as colonial or fail to take seriously as indigenous.
Senakw seems to be searching for the right balance, but so far the spokespeople aren’t saying much beyond good intentions and platitudes – and certainly not about the gap between rhetoric and reality seen elsewhere. But If community concerns are not treated with the respect expected of those who speak for the community, then there will be a real danger that Senakw gets pulled into a political culture war.
My belief is that there’s enough experience, understanding and mutual respect in this city, given the scale of the benefits, the magnitude of the achievement and the potential for another win-win, to avoid intransigence and excess. Guilt and shame are ultimately counterproductive ways to relitigate the past and negotiate a healing future.
If Senakw reflects on the ground the aspirations of its visionaries, it could be the next great megaproject that is better in important ways than those that came before.