How the Squamish First Nation is Reshaping Vancouver

It’s not where you’d expect to find the headquarters of one of the richest organizations in B.C.— in a nondescript module by the railway tracks in North Vancouver, the odour of diesel fuel from the nearby Mosquito Creek marina in the air. The only hint of the operation being run out of the building with its faded, blood-red awning is the young aboriginal man dragging on a cigarette outside a one-person security post. Welcome to the nerve centre of the Squamish First Nation.  

In the distance, across Burrard Inlet, you can see the five sails of Canada Place and the shimmering glass towers of downtown Vancouver. It’s a view that Gibby Jacob, 60, the hereditary chief of the Squamish, takes in every day when he steps out on the deck for a smoke. “Our history is everywhere around here,” he says. “We had so much taken from us. It’s impossible to look across those waters and not think about that. It’s a daily reminder of all that is owed us, of all that we had to give up.”

Jacob’s forbearers made their home on the sloping shore of what is now Kitsilano. In 1913 they were evicted by the government of the day, put on scows, and towed to the North Shore or up Howe Sound. Behind them, their houses were burned. The Squamish First Nation came into being on July 23, 1923, when 16 tribes united under one name in a bid to become powerful enough to stop the hegemony of European settlers. In large part, it was a response to the evictions and burning 10 years earlier.

Jacob’s father, Alfred, born in 1910, was a hand-logger before he became a commercial fisherman near the end of his life. Mother Lena cleaned homes for white people up and down the Squamish valley. She made baskets and worked in the fish canneries at the foot of Gore Street in Vancouver. Jacob was the last of nine children. Growing up on the Capilano reserve, he recalls, “We were poor, but we didn’t know we were poor. You noticed that the white kids had nice runners and all that stuff, but that didn’t matter much when you were a kid. We were happy just to have runners.”

When he started playing lacrosse, at age 10, there was no equipment beyond sticks and balls. “The white kids had all the gear and everything, and we had nothing. So we got beat up pretty good. We’d come home on our bus and we’d be bleeding and black-and-blue from being cross-checked and slashed, but nobody ever cried. That was the rule. Sometimes it hurt so much you could barely breathe. But nobody cried.”

Jacob’s life, more than most, has been a book of sorrows. A brother and sister died before he was born. He lost a sister, brother-in-law, niece, and grand-nephew when M Creek washed out in 1982. Ten years ago, two sisters died within six months, both from aneurysms. But the worst was to come. “That girl,” he says, pointing to a framed photo of a happy-looking eight-year-old. “That’s my late granddaughter, Leanne.” Jacob’s voice catches. “It’s hard to talk about even now.”

In August 2003, Leanne was returning from a camping trip with her mother and stepsisters. When the van pulled into the driveway, her stepfather emerged from the garage with a gun. He put two bullets into Leanne’s head before turning the gun on himself. “I don’t know how low a snake’s belly is, but I was down there,” Jacob says. “And my poor wife. It just about killed her. We cried for a long, long time. It still haunts me.”

In the 10 years since he succeeded the band’s legendary chief, Joe Mathias, Gibby Jacob has emerged as one of the most influential Native leaders in the country, a man with the power to reshape Vancouver. He’s often seen putting an arm around the shoulders of the most influential people in the province. Behind the affable demeanour is a sly tactician who’s helping to remake aboriginal rights in Canada.

“He’s one of the most important leaders in this province, if not the country,” says Pam Goldsmith-Jones, who was the mayor of West Van until retiring last fall. “When he speaks, people listen.” John Furlong discovered the same thing when he was heading up the 2010 Winter Olympics. Furlong knew he needed the cooperation of the aboriginal community if the Games were to be a success. Especially important was the support of the four host nations. Jacob’s participation was key to getting their buy-in. “We knew we had to get Gibby onside because of the respect he commands,” Furlong recalls. “He was wise enough to see the opportunity the Olympics represented for the First Nations community, to tell their story to billions of people.”

Furlong was so impressed with Jacob he had him onstage in Prague when Vancouver was awarded the Games. Jacob was on the floor of BC Place during the opening ceremonies, along with hundreds of Native dancers. “Initially, First Nations were going to get about $15 million worth of Olympic work,” says Furlong. “Mainly because of Gibby, that number got pushed to $50 million. He’s soft-spoken, but when he walks into a room you know he’s there.”

Squamish territorial claims include parts of Vancouver, Burnaby, Port Moody, New West, North Van, West Van, Squamish, Whistler, and Gibsons. The band owns swaths of land in almost all those cities and municipalities. Technically, the land is owned by the federal government and held for the use and benefit of the Squamish. As a result of changes to the law in recent years, however, the Squamish can develop the land pretty much as they see fit.

“This is the bible,” Jacob says, dropping a massive three-ring binder on a table in his office. “An inventory of everything we own, pretty much.” And for the next three hours he walks me through it, with short detours to discuss his hobbies (“I’m a golf whore: I’ll play anywhere”) and the nascent revolt to have him turfed as chief. It’s all delivered in a soft tone at odds with the deep-seated emotions that drive him and the hard bargains for which he’s known.

Until recently, the band’s revenue came mainly from Ottawa, and from an array of businesses including the Mosquito Creek and Lynnwood marinas, a driving range in North Vancouver, and leases on the Park Royal Shopping Centre, an apartment complex in Vancouver, and the Greater Vancouver Sewage Treatment plant.

A few years ago, Jacob and his council found themselves at the centre of a dispute tinged with, if not racism, a healthy dose of anti-Native bias. It erupted when the Squamish announced plans to put up electronic billboards on its lands in Vancouver, North and West Van, and along the Sea to Sky Highway. The band had signed a 30-year contract with a Mississauga-based company, All Vision Canada. Though Jim Pattison had been putting up billboards around Metro Vancouver for years, there seemed to be different rules for the Squamish. Civic politicians and angry citizens rose up in opposition: the billboards, near the off-ramps of the Lions Gate and Burrard bridges, would be a gauche blight on this most livable city. And the accidents, as drivers looked up to see what was being flashed on the board!

Jacob was not amused. After decades of being criticized for relying on the government teat, here was a First Nation eager to build economic independence. If the band wanted to make money, it seemed, it had to be on the white man’s terms. “There are 100 signs within a mile radius of the billboard we put up at the south end of the Burrard Bridge,” he says. “Funny, we didn’t hear people complain about Jimmy’s signs. Was it racism? I think it was mostly fear about what we were doing. For us, it was about money. We stand to make $60 million over 30 years from that contract.”

The debate was a learning experience: Jacob understood that calming the nerves of a jittery citizenry would be half the battle as the band pushed forward with bigger projects, like the one being developed for 528 acres around the Lions Gate Bridge (the Capilano Reserve), and another on eight acres on the south end of the Burrard Bridge.

On the open market, Jacob says, the Capilano site would fetch over $2.5 billion. Residents in West Van are worried about the impact of a cluster of residential towers that would pack in thousands of new residents. Beyond the 2004 Capilano Master Plan that sketched out a vague plan that included residential high-rises, commercial, and retail buildings, the Squamish have stayed mum on their intentions. Jacob smiles when reminded about the angst in West Vancouver. People need to relax, he says; it’s not in the Squamish’s interests to alienate neighbouring communities.

The Kitsilano project is much further along. There are firm plans to build two apartment towers on land adjacent to the Molson Brewery on Burrard Street. The Squamish reclaimed the land thanks to a B.C. Court of Appeal decision in 2002 that ordered CP to return it to the band. The Squamish also got more than $90 million for property it couldn’t reclaim.

“Our village was originally 80 acres,” Jacob says. “Now we have 8.6 acres. We were told no judge in the country was going to displace corporate interests or white interests for our benefit. So this was the only bit of land left that wasn’t built on.”

Kazian Architects has designed the towers, which should be built in the next two years. Two companies will partner with the band to develop the site. When the first tower is fully rented, the band plans to sell it to a real-estate trust. The Squamish will use the proceeds to build the second rental tower on their own. “We’ll bring in a company to manage the place for us,” Jacob says. “We’re going to call it the Squamish ATM. We’re going to swipe our card every month and pull out all the revenue.”

When, in 2005, the federal government passed the First Nations Commercial and Industrial Development Act, it was mostly ignored by the media. So was Bill C-24, the First Nations Certainty of Land Title Act, which received royal assent five years later. Jacob was a quiet force in bringing those laws into being. “They give us power over our future and our destiny,” he says, “power we didn’t have before.”

The first act allows the federal government to regulate commercial endeavours on reserves. Without such regulation, there was little opportunity for large-scale economic development on reserve land. The second act provides for a land-title and -registry system to operate on reserve lands, meaning bands will be able to transfer property rights to non-aboriginals. People buying a condo on reserve land will have an easier time getting bank funding. (They won’t own their condos fee simple; mostly, they’ll sign 99-year leases.)

Those two pieces of legislation freed First Nations from restrictive provisions of the Indian Act, but they created an unintended consequence: there’s less incentive now to sign treaties. The Squamish can create their own economic opportunities while still getting tax-free benefits from Ottawa. That irks Ralph Drew, the mayor of Belcarra. The owner of a $300,000 condo in Metro Vancouver pays regional taxes and fees of about $1,700—property, TransLink, city and school taxes. Someone in the same condo on a reserve would avoid paying that.

“Bands like the Squamish want to have it all,” says Drew. “They want the benefits of developing their land without the responsibilities. They won’t acknowledge that the developments impact the surrounding regions, and taxpayers in particular.”

Drew is also chair of the Lower Mainland Treaty Advisory Committee, which represents Metro Vancouver on aboriginal issues. Earlier this year, the committee released a paper on the impact of FNCIDA and Bill C-24. The paper sounded the alarm about the potential the Squamish now have to build commercial and residential enclaves that become tax-free havens. The committee wants to ensure that new developments on reserves—and that those who live and work on them—pay into regional services, the way other landowners support Metro Vancouver.

“This is really about taxation fairness,” says Drew. “Citizens of Canada all have responsibilities to the maintenance and operation of our public facilities and infrastructure—our schools, roads, transit system, hospitals.” The Squamish do collect some taxes from non-aboriginals living on their lands, a portion of which is remitted to the District of West Van for police, fire, water, and sanitation services. But Drew points out that non-First Nations members aren’t paying taxes for hospitals, schools, infrastructure, and transit—all of which they use. On top of that, the Squamish won’t be charging those who buy condos on their land the property transfer tax.

Drew believes these reforms even have implications for civic elections. The band’s plan for its Capilano land could result in 25,000 people moving into the area over the next 20 years. In West Van, that’s almost 30 percent of the electorate. These new residents would be able to vote on money issues and service referenda, while paying no taxes to the municipality.

University of Calgary professor Tom Flanagan takes a more supportive view of the Squamish position. In his ideal world, the Indian Act tax exemption would not exist. But it’s deeply entrenched, and leaders like Jacob would have little chance of getting development plans approved by their members if it meant relinquishing tax-exempt status. “The Squamish, and other progressive bands, are now levying property tax on leaseholds,” says Flanagan, a former adviser to both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Squamish, and the author of Beyond the Indian Act: Restoring Aboriginal Property Rights. “So this is a step in the right direction. The glass is half full, even if it’s half empty.”

Flanagan points out that while bands like the Squamish aren’t taxed on reserves, they also lack property rights. “That means that their homes, which for most Canadians are their main savings vehicle, can’t develop much economic value. They are basically stranded assets. So you have two suboptimal situations that sort of balance each other out. I’m not going to criticize any leaders who are taking steps to make profitable use of fallow assets.”

Gibby Jacob, for his part, believes Ralph Drew and others are fear-mongering. “Some of the rhetoric I’m hearing isn’t helpful at all. It plays on old fears and stereotypes.” He’s peeved that, because the band is now bringing in millions a year on its own, Ottawa is reducing the money it sends the Squamish. The band, he argues, is being penalized for its success.

Last year, Ottawa transferred about $9 million to the Squamish, and the band itself had revenues of more than $50 million. If $60 million sounds like a lot for 3,800 people, Jacob points out that 60 percent of band members are under 19, and the Squamish population will double in the next 30 years. If he’s not creating a robust future, and providing jobs, education, and health-care services, whose door will they end up at? Yours, fellow taxpayer.

Jacob and his council have enormous influence over a wide range of decisions—including who gets jobs—and band politics can get nasty. Last June, a group of Squamish showed up at the band office with a petition signed by 550 members calling on Jacob and his council to resign. A spokesperson, Jo-Ann Nahenee, said the chief and council had accumulated too much power with too little transparency. Jacob, she said, was selling the Squamish out in the name of the almighty dollar.

In the spring of 20xx, band members rejected a proposal that would have seen the chief and council assume greater authority over land use on reserve lands. Jacob had argued that here was a chance to escape another paternal stricture imposed by the Indian Act, but band members weren’t buying it. Most felt it concentrated control in the hands of too few band politicians.

Some members also point out that Jacob does not disclose his salary. (The Canadian Taxpayers Federation released documents indicating he made $261,000 in 2008.) “I, like everybody else, like some privacy in my affairs,” he says. Nor does the council release audited financial statements. As for printing copies of statements for band members “who have no idea what the hell it means—it just doesn’t make sense.”

Tewanee Joseph, who served eight years on the band council alongside Jacob and is now CEO of the Tewanee Consulting Group, disagrees: “I think when you’re talking about what a person makes and those sorts of things, they should be made public. Council should always be transparent and aboveboard.”

Ralph Drew also questions the Squamish payroll. “They have four chiefs and 12 councillors who are being paid quite handsomely. This is for a community of 3,800 or so. How many municipalities that size have four mayors and 12 councillors? They have 700 people on the band payroll. And yet they’re are always complaining about how impoverished they are.”

Jacob says the band taxes all the revenue it brings in and uses the money for programs and services. Council also distributes $1,000 three times a year to each band member. To band members who believe he’s lining his own pocket, he points out that he drives a used truck and lives in the same 1,200-square-foot rancher he bought in 1976. “Lining my pockets? If you put on a scale of what I’ve gotten from the nation compared to what I’ve given, there’s no comparison.”

Jacob’s term expires in December 2013. After that, he says, he could be done. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years. That’s half my life. If people don’t think it’s stressful, they should try it for awhile. It’s easy to complain and bitch, but what’s the solution? If you have one, let’s hear it.”

He and his second wife, Vivian, have been married for 35 years. “She’s my best friend,” he says. “The longest we’ve ever been apart is 10 days.” He has a son and a daughter from his first marriage, and he and Vivian have four grandchildren.

“I’m responsible for the well-being of 3,800 people and the thousands more who will be born in the years to come,” says Gibby Jacob, beneath the framed photo of his late granddaughter. “That’s what gets me up in the morning—taking care of my people.”