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The hereditary chief discusses avoiding courts and building a new relationship with industry and government

Chief Ian Campbell of the Squamish First Nation has a message for the denizens of Vancouver: “We’re coming home to our own lands.” Campbell, age 43, is a sixth-generation descendent of chief Khatasalano and, since birth, head of the 4,000-person nation. After briefly considering a career in heavy-duty mechanics post-high school, Campbell assumed a tribal leadership position at age 26 as cultural ambassador and negotiator, securing land treaty settlements with the federal and provincial government. Today, he’s the lead negotiator on pivotal files such as the proposed Woodfibre LNG plant in Squamish and nearby Garibaldi Resort, as well the more than $1 billion in real estate that the nation controls in its traditional territory, running from Whistler to Vancouver’s west side. In April, the Squamish—in partnership with the Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam First Nations—purchased the provincial government’s share of the Jericho Lands in Vancouver’s Point Grey for $480 million.

What are your expectations for the “new relationship” promised by Justin Trudeau and his Liberals?
We welcome the new narrative articulated by the prime minister; reconciliation begins with changing the vocabulary, and we encourage that. The last 10 years were very challenging. There were omnibus Bills 38 and 45, and the Foreign Investment Protection Act—an agreement that obligated our lands and resources without our consent or meaningful engagement. And that was problematic.

The Squamish First Nation has a fairly close relationship with the Aquilini family. How did that come about?
We know Luigi from the Garibaldi at Squamish project, where he has had an interest since the 1980s. As for Jericho, when we were approached by the provincial government in 2014, with regard to the sale of 26 properties in our territories, the nation did an analysis of strategic lands we’d like to acquire and we came up with the Willingdon lands in Burnaby and the Liquor Distribution Brand lands in East Vancouver. We approached the Aquilini Group to see if they could advise us on the Jericho transaction. We needed someone who could advise on the feasibility of acquisitions, on what types of uses we could pursue.

First  Nations by PopulationThe decision to approve the proposed Woodfibre LNG facility in Squamish wasn’t without controversy with your people, was it?
Many of our members asked why we didn’t just say no. I wish it could be that easy. Given the strength of our title, it didn’t mean we would challenge it, but we could approach it another way to put in place legally binding conditions. With that approach, we will not support or endorse this project unless they meet all 25 of our conditions, which are framed on environmental revitalization and stewardship. If they can meet those standards, we feel like we’re being responsible in the stewardship of those waters, especially as we see the herring biomass return after decades of absence.

The Woodfibre process—in which a First Nation required a company to undergo an independent environmental assessment in order to attain consent—is quite a departure.
To our knowledge this process has not been undertaken by any other First Nation in Canada. We’re quite proud of what this represents—a new approach for First Nations and for industry to embrace, as it’s in their interest as well. It’s exciting for the Squamish to use this as a mechanism for consent post-Tsilhqot’in. We’ve been approached by a number of groups, and our legal counsel has spoken before a number of forums; we’re able to walk through the process and allow other legal groups to consider the application.

Not every First Nation has been as accepting of the idea of working with industry as the Squamish. Why is that?
We have to answer the question: Do we want to stay under the Indian Act, or do we want to play in the big leagues? We live in a sea of development, with thousands of buildings in our territory where we are the new entrants in our own lands. As we step into land management and development, it’s critical for us to articulate that vision to our young people so that they see the real opportunities as they transition into leadership— the role or responsibility that they have to contribute to the collective wellbeing. It’s an exciting era, and our parents and grandparents didn’t get that. It’s taken generations to get to where we are today.

And you’ve chosen to avoid the courts, for the most part.
We don’t want to take the path of most resistance through litigation, so we’ve looked at how we should mature and move beyond adversarial approaches to create greater certainty. We feel that some of the approaches around independent assessments, like the one at Woodfibre, is a more appropriate way for us to exercise our jurisdiction—working with other levels of government, as well as industry and communities, to create a process that truly addresses our concerns around spiritual values, aboriginal rights and title. 

Squamish Nation Projects by Total Value of Investment

Garibaldi at Squamish $5.2-billion ski resort

Woodfibre LNG $1.6-billion plant

Burnco Aggregate $60-million gravel mine outside of Squamish