Tsawwassen Chief Kim Baird channels the energy of a former teen rebel to forge ahead with business development following the historic First Nations treaty.
She may be in smart business attire this lunchtime, but undertones of Chief Kim Baird’s youthful goth-punk days – complete with voluminous hair – are never far away. It’s what she refers to as a “rebellious spark,” which is often reignited during a career that has included being voted the Tsawwassen First Nation’s youngest female chief ever at 28, and brokering its urban land treaty – a historic first for B.C. “It’s good to have that kind of attitude,” says the 40-year-old, while picking at a seafood salad followed by chocolate cake at Delta’s Riverhouse Restaurant. “Today it’s without the goth melodrama and self-indulgence,” she quips, “but it still makes me push for things.”
Push indeed: on the first day the treaty took effect in 2009, following 12 years of negotiation, the Tsawwassen First Nation passed 23 laws replacing statutes of the Indian Act that had formerly governed it, and registered all its territory into the provincial land titles system. (At around 1,600 land titles, it was the largest title registration ever done in one day, she adds proudly.)
Since then, she says, “hundreds” of potential partners have expressed interest in the band’s economic development and the Tsawwassen First Nation has entered into a memorandum of agreement with Ivanhoe Cambridge and Property Development Group to develop up to 70 hectares as a mixed-use project. (The treaty – valued at around $120 million in total – netted the community more than 700 hectares of land.) “The one thing we have always had going for us is location, location, location,” says the mother of three daughters, aged two to seven, who is now in her sixth term as leader.
These early years, as she puts it, are critical: “Autonomy is awesome, and the opportunity is huge,” she says, “but we need to be careful not to squander things. We have to have the right deals and the best use of the land as a base of sustainability.” Touting the band’s “business-forward approach,” Baird (a director of both BC Hydro and Metro Vancouver) brings up financial projections that have the Tsawwassen First Nation economically self-sufficient within 10 to 15 years. “That’s an amazing transformation,” she enthuses, “but how we leverage that to transform the quality of life for our members is what really excites me.”
News that this year has seen the highest number of post-secondary applications within the community (at 16, it was 13 more than in 2009) buoys Baird. “The real success is going to be on an individual level,” she says, adding that the community is studying best practices for early childhood and other education levels. Under the treaty, Tsawwassen has its own school board which, she explains, means it’s foreseeable that within five years it can build its own schools. “We’re promoting more entrepreneurialism and making sure we have good education to make that happen,” Baird says. “The treaty’s been a game changer, a real community-building exercise.”
Although almost 70 per cent of the 200 voters in her community agreed to the treaty, dissenters still make their voices heard, most noticeably, protesting in 2007 when Baird was the first woman other than an MLA to address the B.C. Legislature. “You have to grow a tough skin,” reacts the former Kwantlen arts student. “My job’s not to be popular; it’s to advance my community’s interests.” Which, as she mentions repeatedly, she is “extremely impatient” to do. “But I have to remember,” she adds, referring to First Nations being forced into residential schools, “that we’re overcoming a huge systemic problem.”
Keeping her voice slow and measured (an innate skill, she says, that helped during negotiations), she notes that “no amount of money could compensate for the injustices” done to aboriginal people. “I never mean to be super-critical, but the more you study, the more you realize what a rotten deal First Nations have had. Overall, my primary driver in all this was, ‘Why aren’t our living conditions the same as our neighbours’?’ I won’t be satisfied until there’s equality, or sleep well until we have sustainable revenue.”
Judging by her determination, that might not take long; in the meantime, however, she chuckles, adding that her daughters have trained her to function just fine on very little sleep.