For a politician, one of the worst places to be located is in an ironic corner, and on a day in early June last year, West Vancouver’s new mayor, Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, found herself in just such a spot.
The Squamish Nation, long-time occupants of the town’s Capilano Indian Reserve, had just announced they’d soon be erecting 13 large, electronic billboards beside three major bridges into Vancouver. Two of these Tri-Vision rotating signs would be positioned at the northern end of the Lions Gate Bridge, right beside West Vancouver’s busiest intersection. The outdoor signs were, said band leaders, a done deal. The contract had already been signed with an Ontario company. Worse, Goldsmith-Jones – like the mayors of Vancouver and the District of North Vancouver – could do nothing because the billboards would be sited on federally controlled Squamish reserve lands, beyond the jurisdiction of municipal bylaws. Worse still, reports were there would be, in time, 100 more. Goldsmith-Jones was shocked. The news came as a complete surprise. Billboards sounded, to her, like a failure on the First Nation’s part to create legitimate financial development on its reserves. What’s more, West Vancouver has the most stringent regulations against public signage in B.C. It doesn’t even allow signs on bus shelters. And now the Squamish First Nation, supposed paragons of aesthetic sensitivity and natural stewardship, wanted to put a couple of big, flashy billboards at the town’s main entrance. A lot of people, she felt, would be upset. But how to confront the plan? Criticism, given the uneasy history of white-aboriginal relations, could easily be misconstrued as racist or politically incorrect. The irony. Long-time Squamish Chief Bill Williams fails to see the irony in the situation. In fact, the possibility of reserve-based billboards alongside Vancouver’s major bridges has been under discussion, he says, for 20 years. The decision in 2004 to seek bids from outdoor advertising companies was viewed by the tribal council as a necessary quick fix for an economic situation that had become dire. The band receives $15 million annually in federal grants toward education, social welfare and housing. It also receives $45 million annually from revenue generated by 70 leases for places such as the Park Royal Shopping Centre, the Capilano R.V. Park and the Seymour Creek Golf Centre. That money, explains Williams, is no longer sufficient to cover the needs of the band’s 3,300 members scattered in nine small settlements from North Vancouver to the upper reaches of the Squamish Valley. There are a lot of urgent issues to deal with: housing, special education, health care, job training. More than 60 per cent of the band is under 25. When Canada’s outdoor advertising companies learned the Squamish Nation was interested in discussing scores of billboard placements on its reserves, the industry was delighted. Management knew the public does not, in general, like outdoor advertising. Most B.C. towns – but not Vancouver – have bylaws prohibiting it. So executives are always on the lookout for new, legal, high-traffic B.C. billboard sites; almost inevitably, that means unregulated First Nations reserves. But when the specifics of the Squamish proposal became known – especially those 13 billboards slated for the three Vancouver bridges – some sign companies had second thoughts. The province’s largest, Pattison Outdoor Advertising, was interested in the dozens of other potential Squamish billboard sites along Highway 99 on reserve lands south of Whistler, which would be perfect for the upcoming Olympics. But the company viewed as unwise any billboard construction beside the southern end of Kitsilano’s Burrard Street Bridge or amid the northern ramps of the Second Narrows and Lions Gate bridges. Billboards there were bound to be contentious, and Pattison didn’t need the flak. In 2004, the Squamish Nation – bypassing the major companies – signed a 30-year contract with newly formed, Mississauga-based All Vision Canada to broker the installation and marketing of the 13 billboards. In turn, All Vision awarded the contract for managing the billboards to Outdoor Media Canada. Few beyond the three parties knew about the deal. The application for approval of the project was then sent to the federal department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), a protocol required of any non- aboriginal development proposal on reserve land. An environmental assessment is also required by INAC, and that was supposed to be submitted in early 2007. In most cases, billboard approval is pro forma, and is made within 60 days of receipt of the environmental assessment documents. The quiet Squamish-All Vision arrangement called for 13 super-sized boards with dimensions of 10 feet by 36 feet. All would be illuminated 24/7. All would have the triple Tri-Vision slats, flipping every four to eight seconds. Many would be double-sided, facing both directions. Five, mounted on enormous steel towers and located on reserve land 50 metres off the eastern Burrard Street Bridge railing, would greet drivers each day as they headed toward downtown Vancouver. Six more would be positioned on both sides of North Vancouver’s Second Narrows Bridge, some elevated and some by the Mount Seymour Parkway adjacent to the Real Canadian Superstore. The other two would greet eastbound travellers on Marine Drive as they exited the Lions Gate Bridge in West Vancouver. For both the Squamish Nation and All Vision, aesthetics was not an issue. First Nations have a legal right to lease their reserve land for outdoor advertising, regardless of public opinion or local anti-sign bylaws. That, they say, is all that matters. And All Vision assured the Squamish that, according to research, billboards do not pose a traffic hazard. The bottom line was that the deal would be a multimillion-dollar bonanza, barring unforeseen political interference. The Squamish billboards are the first for All Vision in B.C., but the company has billboards all over North America. Since outdoor advertising rates are based on a formula that involves billboard size, location, length of view to drivers, lighting and the amount of passing traffic, the locations at three of the busiest bridges in B.C. could mean some serious cash. For example, the Burrard Street Bridge, carrying a volume of 35,000 vehicles a day, could command an ad rate of, say, $6,000 a month for one face of a Tri-Vision rotating sign. Multiply that by three for one triple rotation and you get $18,000 a month – for one side of one sign. Since four of the five proposed Kitsilano signs are to be double-sided, the math for the nine proposed billboard sides yields $162,000 a month, or an annual gross of $2 million, minus change. Over the course of the contract, Squamish Nation leaders project their net earnings for the 13 Vancouver-area billboards, after All Vision and Outdoor Media get their cut, at $30 million. It would be a win-win-win proposition for all three. Of course, when news of the deal broke last June, almost everybody else was horrified. Mayor Goldsmith-Jones immediately got on the phone to Toby Baker, the Squamish Nation’s department head of project development and negotiation, and made it clear that despite legalities, the billboard project was, to her mind, an economic dead end and antithetical to West Vancouver values. Were the signs to go up, she pointed out, the town’s voters might have difficulty approving future Squamish development projects that require municipal co-operation, such as the long-discussed Ambleside residential/commercial complex adjacent to Park Royal. It was not a threat, she felt, but a matter of realpolitik. Vancouver City Councillor Raymond Louie immediately sensed the five billboards slated for the Burrard Street Bridge might produce, to use his word, an “explosive” public reaction. Their appearance would not only ruin the view, but also compromise the impending $17.5-million restoration and widening of the Art Deco heritage bridge. Like Goldsmith-Jones, he felt that the First Nation could find a far better use for its land than outdoor advertising. Plus, with the billboards up, the Squamish might lose the motivation to look for something more compatible with their traditional cultural sensibilities. After all, the abandoned Kitsilano Indian Reserve site, now a 4.2-hectare dead zone of dirt and bush, connects popular Granville Island to the museum complex at Vanier Park.