The Tsleil-Waututh’s Secrets to Success

A clutch of diehard golfers drives balls into the slashing rain of a stormy North Shore day at the Takaya Golf Centre as Justin George ducks into the shelter of his leather-seated coupe. George, 42, stepped down in April after his second term as chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation to take a staff position as project manager for the band’s economic development arm. The band is tiny in size-of roughly 500 members, just 243 live on the 275-acre Tsleil-Waututh reserve-but mighty in business, with interests in wind power, award-winning residential development, tourism, construction, insurance, this golf course, and other ventures.

Genial and plainspoken, George is a former Junior A hockey star with a speedy winger’s solid frame. After NHL dreams faded, he skated in England for the Sheffield Steelers before returning to the reservation a decade ago. Leadership runs in the family. His father, Leonard, was an eloquent and enterprising chief who helped set the band on its progressive business-minded course, and remains an integral leader and dealmaker. Three years before Justin was born, grandfather Chief Dan George (actor, politician, elocutionist) mounted the stage at Empire Stadium during Canada’s centennial celebrations to recite his famous soliloquy “Lament for Confederation,” a damning indictment of the treatment and decline of Canada’s aboriginal people.

One can only imagine the faces of the mostly white crowd gathered as the token Indian on TV, the handsome fellow who wore his hair long and played Chief Moses Charlie on The Beachcombers and was nominated for an Academy Award for the magnificent 1970 film Little Big Man with a young Dustin Hoffman, spoke: “When I fought to protect my land and home, I was called a savage. When I neither welcomed nor understood this way of life, I was called lazy. When I tried to rule my people, I was stripped of my authority.”

Maureen Thomas, who succeeded Justin George as chief in April, was in the stadium that day in 1967, a newlywed barely out of her teens. She remembers an audience overwhelmed, so silent as Chief George spoke that she could hear the uncomfortable shuffling and breathing of those around her. Hardly the celebratory message our white, male political leaders would have chosen to usher in Canada’s second century. “When I watch the film of it today,” says Thomas, “I’m still almost moved to tears.”

She has experience with powerful leaders. After serving a term as chief of the Tsleil-Waututh in 2003, she sat on council for two terms. She says she hopes to bring to her latest tenure as chief some of the wisdom she learned while working for the Squamish First Nation under the late hereditary chief Joe Mathias, as well as Harold Calla, another influential Squamish member, a chartered accountant and one of the founders of the First Nations Financial Management Board where Thomas has worked as manager of corporate services for the past 11 years. She says she wants to see the Tsleil-Waututh work more closely and cooperatively with neighbouring bands like the Squamish on common issues like access to resources and land.

I slide into the seat next to Justin George. He pulls out of the driving range lot onto the rain slicked streets of North Van and reflects on his grandfather. “I think he would be proud of the nation today,” he says as we pull into Raven Woods, a complex of attractive condominiums that would blend in well with the recreational Babylon of Whistler Village. “Twenty years ago we had 60 to 70 percent unemployment and a staff of two at the band office. Today we have more than 70 staff and unemployment on the reserve is close to zero.”

Tsleil-Waututh (pronounced “tSLAY-wah-tooth”) means “people of the inlet.” They are Coast Salish, politically distinct but closely linked through ethnicity and the Halkomelem dialect with the Musqueam and Squamish nations. Numbering an estimated 10,000 pre-contact, they have never ceded control of their traditional territory, which sweeps across the North Shore, out to the Fraser River, and up Indian Arm into the Coast Mountains where it overlaps with Squamish lands. Today they number in the hundreds and fewer than five elders speak Halkomelem, though there is a resurgent interest in the tongue. Then there’s business. The band’s portfolio of enterprises-mainly emerging from land holdings-is a hydra-headed beast that includes Takaya Developments responsible for Raven Woods, Inlailawatash Forestry Limited Partnership, SPAL General Contractors (a project-management joint venture with Tsawwassen First Nation), Takaya Tours, Takaya Golf Centre, and Burrard General Store. The most recent venture is TWN Windpower Inc., a partnership with Surrey-based Endurance Wind Power, and the band is nurturing a relationship with Seaspan with hopes of capitalizing on those multibillion-dollar shipbuilding contracts.

We continue west to the heart of the Tsleil-Waututh reservation, set on a forested hillside looking out across Burrard Inlet. The place has a slightly chaotic appearance, with a trampoline in a front yard, kids’ bikes on the sidewalks, oversize satellite dishes appended awkwardly to houses, boat engines half dismantled on driveways, and old cars without licence plates shoehorned between lots. The tyranny of the manicured North American lawn is absent but so too is the oppressive mood of idleness and despair I’ve sensed on other reserves. Justin pulls onto the shoulder and nods toward a tidy house wedged between Dollarton Highway and the inlet. That’s where he grew up with father Leonard, British-born mother Sue, and his three brothers. Back then Tsleil-Waututh shot deer in the forest and harvested clams and oysters from the beach, but now the forest has made way for condos and the shellfish are considered too toxic for consumption. As a kid Justin looked out across the inlet at the Chevron oil refinery in Burnaby, which has been slowly leaching a mix of crude, diesel, and gas into the inlet since at least 2010 when a breach was discovered. Today it’s the western terminus of Kinder Morgan’s proposed twinning of a pipeline that could more than double the amount of oil being shipped out of Port Metro Vancouver. The Tsleil-Waututh are vigorously opposed to Kinder Morgan’s plans and have found allies in the Burnaby and Vancouver municipal councils.

“Too much risk, too little reward,” Justin says.

Like many of his generation, Leonard George, who now heads up Takaya Developments and is director of TWN economic development, was plucked from the family home when he was seven and shunted off to St. Paul’s Indian Residential School. By the time he was elected chief in 1977, he was already incubating an entrepreneurial zeal. Over the years in numerous speeches he referred to the Tsleil-Waututh as modern-day hunters of the business world, a metaphor son Justin is not shy to recycle. When most financial institutions-let alone corporate Canada-would have walked at first sight of an Indian knocking for investment capital, Leonard forged a joint venture with the Kuok Group of Companies, of Vancouver’s Shangri-la Hotel and more than 40 other hotels around the world (not to mention the South China Morning Post and various shipping and beverage company interests).

In 1989 Leonard George met Loong Keng Lim, who was married to company chairman Robert Kuok’s niece. “I told him the story of what I wanted to do,” he says, his speech forever muddled from the effects of cancer surgery but his intensity and passion undiminished. “My dreams and vision to form a government-independent band and to create an independent economic machine. So he began to coach me. We interviewed different companies looking for financing, but he became so frustrated he said, ‘I’ll do it for you. We will find a way.’ ” And they did. The importance that the Kuoks placed on family ties resonated strongly with Leonard and the Tsleil-Waututh way of doing business, and their support was a crucial vote of confidence for the chief’s vision. They had vastly deep pockets as well. The Kuoks took a 20 percent share in Raven Woods, now in its second phase of construction with Destiny 2, a 98-unit property with prices ranging from $289,000 to $549,000.

It’s difficult to get a handle on how much revenue TWN’s business activities generate. Band administrators and elected members are coy. Suffice to say that business, starting with Raven Woods 20 years ago, has made possible a community of opportunity and hope lacking when Dan George led his people between 1951 and 1963. It allowed the band, back in 2001, to purchase 800 acres at the head of Indian Arm. The irony of having to buy back land over which their ancestors would have hunted and travelled unencumbered prior to European contact, land to which they’ve never surrendered title, is not lost on them.

Richard Walton, District of North Vancouver mayor for the last six years, says that among the greater North Shore community few people know how to spell Tsleil-Waututh let alone comprehend that their houses are built on traditional land. He describes the relationship between North Van and the TWN as generally positive but not always seamless. The district and the TWN co-manage Cates Park, an important ancestral site for the Tsleil-Waututh. In 1999 fishermen discovered human remains on the shoreline dating back 300 years. These days if a worker wants to stick a shovel in the ground at Cates he consults the band first. Walton, as a chartered accountant, hails from a world where things happen at the brisk pace of private enterprise. When he entered municipal politics, he grew accustomed to the much slower bureaucratic mode. When it comes to dealing with the district’s First Nation neighbour, such as forging a service agreement around utilities and road access, he says things can move at a pace that seems glacial, thanks to the blended machinations of elected band councils and elders, a process that often appears byzantine to outsiders.

“But we respect those traditions,” Walton says, over the phone from the mayor’s office. “A lot of people view First Nations as being insular, but the Tsleil-Waututh are very worldly and entrepreneurial.”

The way of the modern Tsleil-Waututh has not been beyond approach and criticism. When the band joined with the Squamish, Musqueam, and Lil’wat peoples to form Four Host First Nations as part of the 2010 Games, in some corners they were called sellouts, signing up to be the token Indians that VANOC and the IOC could parade around during the open ceremonies. Shades of Little Big Man.

The elder George is unapologetic. “When we are doing really bad and the reserve is in poverty and riddled with drugs and alcohol, no education, those people will criticize you for being a poor Indian,” he says. “When you become successful and become a part of society on the world stage you are going to have the same people complaining that you are being used.” Four Host First Nations enabled indigenous people to stand shoulder to shoulder with other partners in the Games, he says, and if that’s tokenism then the same label should apply to any municipality or organization that was invited aboard the Olympic bandwagon. The fact that participation came with $17 million in federal government funds for the TWN was no doubt also attractive.

Justin George parks in front of TWN’s impressive community centre. Four massive posts support beams that soar above the entrance like the bows of war canoes. Inside aspiring chefs are at work in the kitchen, part of the first intake into a chefs’ training pilot program. Chief Dan George would have been proud to see young Tsleil-Waututh acquiring the sorts of culinary skills that would hold up in a white man’s world of haute cuisine. In his “Lament for Confederation,” he envisioned the day his people would “grab the instruments of the white man’s success-his education, his skills.” He could have been speaking down through the generations directly at youth like his great-great-grandson Jordan Gallie. In 2006 a CBC film crew came knocking at the TWN band office wanting to document the school experience of First Nation kids from urban reserves, to better understand why only four out of 10 Native kids in Canada graduate from high school. Four Tsleil-Waututh teenagers let the cameras into their private lives. The surprisingly candid documentary, originally titled Reading, Writing and the Rez but later changed to the more sensational Reds, Whites and the Blues, depicted a bleak picture of Tsleil-Waututh teenagers: alienated, disaffected, barely eking out passing grades at Seycove secondary. In the documentary we met Gallie: on the one hand, artistic, athletic, and thoughtful; on the other, a pot-smoking punk bristling with attitude and a barely suppressed rage getting ejected from school time and time again. We were left with the impression that Gallie’s life was a train wreck of negative Native stereotypes.

Gallie, 23, now lives with his girlfriend and newborn child across town on the Musqueam reserve near UBC. He still hasn’t earned his Dogwood high-school diploma, but a year after the doc was aired he joined Canada World Youth for a six-month foray to Bolivia and later studied jewellery-making at the Native Education College on East Fifth Avenue. “Life-changing experiences,” he says. Looking back he’s embarrassed by the public exposé of his difficult teenage years but says the documentary more or less captured the outcast experience of being a Native kid in a North Van school. It’s an experience that Andrew Van Eden, TWN’s community justice coordinator, doubts has changed much for the Tsleil-Waututh youth of today. Change takes time.

The sky brightens. Sun pierces leaden clouds and a light rain dimples the surface of Burrard Inlet as Justin George steers out of the rez and onto Dollarton. Back at the Takaya Golf Centre, the parking lot is full with fair weather golfers. He parks, turns off the ignition, and sits back. He seems in no hurry, but I have a ferry to catch so I shake his hand and thank him for his time. Just as I reach my own car, Justin calls out, “Wait, I have something for you. I almost forgot.”

He pulls out a blanket, two beautiful silk ties bearing a traditional Coast Salish design, and a hardcover coffee table book about the Tsleil-Waututh. In my line of work this would normally constitute an extremely awkward moment; acceptance would be breaching a journalistic code. However it is given humbly, with a sense of pride in a band that has taken great strides since the troubled, inspirational days of Chief Dan George.

“We’ve come a long way,” Justin says. “But we still have a long way to go.”