The digital billboards on the Burrard Bridge advertise not just corporate products but a First Nation determined to prosper

This was once a village,” says Ian Camp­bell, with a sweep of his arm, “a major village of the Squamish people.” We’re standing under the Burrard Bridge, on the south side of False Creek near the Molson brewery; 10.3 acres of land down here constitute Kitsilano Indian Reserve No. 6. “This was a very rich area for resources. False Creek had an abundance of sturgeon, salmon, seals, bog cranberries and wild rice, big stands of timber, particularly red cedar trees. Shellfish, oolichan, heron, rockfish. Because of the location of this village, it became a major trade centre for many of the Coast Salish people who were travelling through this region.” No one lives here today, but I see dog walkers, a city maintenance vehicle, a discarded sleeping bag in the patch of poplar trees, and I hear the hum of vehicles overhead. The paved seawall curves between the marina and a thicket of brambles where a totem pole stands. A fleet of white SUVs is parked out of the rain on several acres behind chain-link fencing, their Vanoc branding spotless. Campbell, 36, sees something else beneath this bridge. A past, certainly. His great-great-great-grandfather, Khatsahlano, inspired the name of this neighbourhood. “We’re in a part of the Squamish territory known as Senakw.” (It’s pronounced “snock.”) But a future, too. A hereditary chief of the Squamish First Nation, Campbell was elected in December to the band council for a second four-year term. Dressed in a wool coat, the capitalist, entrepreneur, and cultural ambassador wears leather gloves and clasps his hands in front of him. He smiles at passersby. Behind us, an 18-metre post of rolled steel supports two digital billboards reaching above the bridge deck so that vehicles entering and exiting downtown can’t miss them. Similar billboards stand in three other locations on Squamish reserve land on the North Shore. They went up in November, when the Squamish Nation told local media they had signed a 30-year contract with Astral Media Outdoor for $30 million. Campbell said the annual income of the Squamish is about $60 million. He’s proud that the band generates 80 cents of every dollar, with the federal government contributing the balance. Challenges like limited housing have not been solved, but the Squamish are finding ways to generate more income. The revenue from the billboards is an opportunity that comes with living adjacent to a major city and finding “ways of adapting to this modern environment,” Campbell says. “The billboards are just one more tool for us.” At three by 10 metres, the face of the billboard is a third bigger than most in Vancouver. Every 10 seconds, its 112,649 LED diodes flash a static, illuminated advertisement. (In January, VANOC announced they purchased control of the ad space to prevent ambush marketing during the Games.) To those who suggest contemporary commercialism is out of step with so-called authentic indigenous tradition, Campbell says this: “I’m a hunter. When I go up in the mountains, I don’t use a bow and arrow, I use a 7mm magnum. It doesn’t make me any less Squamish. I drove here in my Dodge Ram today; I didn’t pull here in a canoe.” This 10.3-acre reserve is the result of a colonial process begun in 1877 when the Dominion of Canada allotted the First Nation 86 acres of land, stretching west of what’s now Granville Island as far as Vanier Park and north of Cornwall Avenue to False Creek. At Senakw, the Indian Agent had registered 14 men, 16 women, and 12 children in 1866. “The federal government allocated 26 reserves to the Squamish Nation,” says Campbell, who lives on reserve in North Vancouver, “which could be considered islands within our territory. If you put all of those reserves together, they comprise just 0.3 percent of our traditional land.” Squamish claim 6,734 square kilometres encompassing area from the Burrard Inlet north to Whistler. In April 1913, the provincial government pressured the Squamish for Senakw, paying $11,250 to the head of each family. A day later, the inhabitants and their possessions, including remains from a grave site, were barged to the North Shore. In Ottawa, the Leader of the Opposition, Wilfrid Laurier, called the payment “altogether inadequate.” He said, “I should be extremely surprised if…a plot of land of 80 acres within the city limits of Vancouver would command no larger price than $200,000.” Laurier was correct. The land had received other offers, including one reported to exceed $1.5 million. But the Dominion refused all bids. City council expropriated eight acres of land in 1932, bisecting the reserve to link downtown with growing Kitsilano. Although the property was appraised at over $100,000, council balked and arbitrators decreased the compensation to $44,988. “We experienced a lot of alienation of our land and resources,” says Campbell. “Many of the reserves certainly were the path of least resistance for rights-of-way and utility corridors.” In 1977, the Squamish initiated legal action to reclaim parts of the property that had been sold. Following decades in the courts, including counterclaims from other Coast Salish First Nations, the Squamish in 2002 secured control over a misshapen fraction of the once-larger reserve. That award included the land Campbell and I are standing on now, and the Squamish are capitalizing on the high-traffic asset. The digital signs contravene a Vancouver by-law that limits billboards to 21.5 square metres—more than 300 billboards in the city sidestep these regulations, including 13 on city-owned land—but municipal rules do not apply on Squamish land. Stephanie Doerksen of the Vancouver Public Space Network respects the Squamish’s right to benefit from their resources but laments “ad creep” in general, the influence of private, corporate interest on public spaces. Others have criticized the billboards for imposing a garish blight on Vancouver’s sea-to-sky vistas. Campbell dismisses these objections: “We’re in an urban setting. As we work with developers from around the world that can help us shape our future, we recognize where we are positioned in the global market.” He glances up at the bridge as we turn and walk toward False Creek. “One way or another,” says Campbell, “we are going to assert ourselves. We’re not asking anyone’s permission. If people are reacting to the billboards, just wait and see what we’re planning next.”