Tsawwassen First Nation—a community transformed
Organizing childhood birthday parties was never a simple task for Victoria Williams.
The recent Delta Secondary School grad attended plenty of her schoolmates' parties in Ladner over the years, but when it came time for her to turn a year older, persuading guests to make the trek to her house on Tsawwassen First Nation land was no easy feat.
"People don't really come here very often. A lot of people don't even know where it is," Williams says. "I've never had friends that would come down here."
Socializing with school friends got a bit easier after TransLink introduced a community shuttle service along Tsawwassen Drive in late 2008.
"Before the 609 (bus) was here, they'd (friends) have to get off at the end of the reserve and walk all the way down in a big mob," Williams recalls.
That feeling of isolation shared by many TFN youth could soon be a thing of the past.
On Jan. 18, an overwhelming 97 per cent of TFN members voted in favour of granting a 99-year lease to allow construction of two, large shopping malls. The proposed commercial development—which still requires a number of approvals before ground can be broken—is part of an extensive land use plan that also includes a residential and industrial component.
Williams, 18, was one of 111 voters to cast a ballot last week. This is the first time she's been eligible to vote in a TFN referendum.
With members' approval in place, the TFN is moving forward with plans to build 1.8 million-square-feet of retail and entertainment space.
"It seems like such a big decision to make with such a little pen mark in a box," Williams says.
She hopes her "yes" vote will help provide jobs for TFN members, including her fellow youth, and allow the TFN to build stronger ties with surrounding communities.
"It's not going to be as closed off anymore," Williams says. "There's going to be lots of traffic down here and it's going to change."
Recovering their culture
Williams has always valued the security of living in a tight community where all residents feel like family—regardless of bloodline. Growing up with little in the way of organized entertainment or recreational facilities, she says children would play imaginative games, many of which took place on the vast expanse of flat land.
"It was always fun to run in the back fields and just explore everything because it's a big place, especially for such a little kid," Williams says.
She remembers catching frogs, hunting snakes, exploring her neighbour's backyard forest and hiding out in the tree fort her brother and father built three storeys above ground.
With major development in the works, she hopes future generations of children will still be able to experience the land like she did.
"I don't want nature to be gone. I hope we figure out a way to keep it around."
Although she has spent most of her life on TFN land—she spent a brief time in Ladner—Williams admits her knowledge of Tsawwassen culture and heritage is lacking.
"I don't know much about it, personally—but I'd like to know more."
And she may get that wish, thanks to future revenue generated by the proposed mall.
Tsawwassen elder Ruth Adams says the retail complex will allow the TFN to reclaim their long, rich history.
"We'll be able to put landmarks all over our nation to show where our ancestors walked and what we did in those locations," Adams says. Without the expected project revenue "we wouldn't have the money to get back our culture, we wouldn't have the money to get back our language."
When the Tsawwassen First Nation treaty came into effect in April 2009, the TFN regained autonomy and self-governing powers after more than a century of colonial rule.
Adams says TFN members were "invisible people" before the that historic occasion.
"Now that we've got the treaty and we're on the map, people are looking at us differently."
The oldest of 11 children, Adams was born in Vancouver and fondly remembers visiting her grandmother on the former Tsawwassen reserve during the summertime.
She and her husband made the permanent move in 1991 after 35 years spent in Ladner.
Going forward, Adams is hopeful her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren aren't faced with the same racism she experienced in school, or the injustices and oppressive policies her own parents endured under the early Indian Act.
"We're all looking at each other and ourselves in a proud way—not a guilt and shame way. I'm not ashamed of my parents going through their hardship."
Creating an economy
There are 430 Tsawwassen First Nation members. A little more than half live on the land; the rest are mostly divided between Bellingham, Wash. and the B.C. Interior.
According to statistics collected last year, 50 per cent of members earn less than $30,000 per year. The employment rate, which refers to the number of persons employed in the week, is 57 per cent, compared to 71 per cent in B.C. The high school graduation rate stands at 52 per cent and the number of people who use social assistance is higher than in neighbouring municipalities.
With the mall proposal, Tom McCarthy, manager of policy and intergovernmental affairs at TFN, says he "absolutely" expects those numbers to improve.
McCarthy couldn't estimate the projected tax revenue from the project, but expects it will be "significant"—in the millions of dollars range per year. Leasehold revenues will be invested into community programs, economic development, future generations, and a portion will be distribution to individual members—though, how that portion will be calculated is still a topic of consultation.
On the job front, construction alone is expected to create 1,500 jobs and down the line, there will be an estimated 4,500 full-time and part-time retail-related positions.
"We are a youthful community, and so we think there's going to be many jobs for our youth and our young adults," said Chris Hartman, CEO of the TFN Economic Development Corp.
Under a members benefit agreement, the developers will also put up money for job training.
"Training not only in construction and retail, but also retail management, property management, a whole host of different activities, so our members can be trained in those positions and then secure a job on the project."
Also negotiated is a "preferential planning policy" which will give TFN members an advantage should they want to open a business.
Hartman hopes this will entice members living off land to return.
"We know there's some very successful businesses in those satellite locations, so hopefully they will not only bring their business, but their families back home."
A welcoming place
The proposed mall development has received mixed reaction from the surrounding communities. Agricultural advocates, such as Delta Coun. Ian Paton, have lamented the loss of farmland to commercial and industrial projects.
Paton explains the "prime" agricultural land that butts up against the former reserve boundary was owned by local farming families until the late 1960s when it was expropriated by the province to be used as backup industrial land. But the province never developed it.
"Rather than giving the farm families the opportunity to finally, after all those years, purchase their farms back, (the provincial government) used it as trade bait in the treaty negotiation, so it was very unfortunate I thought."
Meanwhile, small business owners worry about surviving in the shadow of big-box stores, and others have questioned the viability of a mega-mall in the South Delta area.
But Adams couldn't be more excited about what the future holds for her family, her fellow TFN members and their land.
"We'll have sidewalks, we'll have bicycle paths, we'll have transportation with the bus," she says.
And the best part is that all the decisions are entirely in the hands of the TFN.
"We get to do things ourself," Adams says. "That choice is heaven and earth to us."
She already knows of some members planning their return to the land, which she now compares to a "welcoming house" as opposed to the "prison" it once was under the Indian Act.
"With our treaty we are opening up our arms and saying we don't mind sharing our beauty with people," she says.
"It'll make the children proud because it shows them what we were and what we're going to be again—only better."
At 18, Williams is still unsure what the future holds, but she hopes wherever life takes her, it eventually leads her back to the land.
"I have a lot of things that I want to do, but it would always be nice to come back here to where I came from," she says.
When she is ready to settle down, her home will likely look far different from the place where she used to catch frogs in ponds. But Williams is already imagining how she might turn her creativity and passion for art into a business located on the land.
"I would love to have a tattoo shop," she says, "or a hair studio."