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. [pagebreak] The billboard news ricocheted around Vancouver City Hall like a glazed Tim Hortons doughnut at a Jenny Craig convention. Few wanted to touch it publicly for fear of being seen as culpable. With a moratorium on all new outdoor advertising and no legal avenue to halt construction, city staff looked at precedents in their recent negotiations with Vancouver’s Musqueam Band, which had also begun flexing its on-reserve development muscle. The Squamish, it was felt, needed to know – nicely! – how contentious the billboards would be, and the city needed to find ways to accommodate them in the face of their legitimate financial goals. Since the city was already in negotiations with the Squamish Nation about the impending renovation of the Burrard Street Bridge – over the new, five-metre-wide exterior sidewalks that will jut into Squamish reserve airspace – maybe the city could help the Nation with further compensatory options if the billboards were to go. Nowhere did the news hit harder than in the District of North Vancouver. There, feisty city councillor Lisa Muri and the more circumspect new mayor, Richard Walton, found themselves with a public that opposed the billboards at the city’s Second Narrows entrance on both aesthetic and safety grounds. For Walton, a lifetime North Shore resident, any more roadside distractions would only further complicate a series of perplexing lane shifts and multiple cloverleafs that, he admits, baffle him to this day. He feels certain six billboards would add to the number of traffic accidents there. After two public meetings late last summer, where hostility toward the billboards was nearly unanimous, District Council sent a resolution to Jim Prentice, federal minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, strongly opposing the construction of any outdoor advertising in the city. It was a shot across the canoe of the Squamish plans. Muri also made it known she’d heard rumours the proposed $100-million Seymour Creek Mall, to be located on Squamish land directly adjacent to the proposed site for two billboards, was in jeopardy, as its developers faced a possible public backlash due to the controversy. And Mayor Walton, fearing bluntness but needing to exorcize his frustration, said to an empty chair and an imaginary Toby Baker during an interview with a journalist at that time: “Hey, Toby, we’d really like those billboards to go away!” Others took more direct action. Last October, 65-year-old William Nahanne, a Squamish elder and resident of North Vancouver’s Mosquito Creek Reserve, stood with his two sons amid the two affected North Shore intersections waving placards that read: No To Billboards. No To Nepotism. He felt, he said later, that the outdoor advertising would just produce another money grab by the overpaid Squamish leadership and that it ran counter to the values of environmental stewardship and consideration of neighbours traditionally advocated by First Nations. Nahanne said he knew others on the reserve who felt similarly but feared being ostracized if they were to speak out. People in Kitsilano began calculating the engineering logistics of catapults capable of launching paint-filled condoms or cantaloupes toward the Burrard Street Bridge signs. The most vociferous billboard critic, however, was North Vancouver businessman Wayne Hunter, whose initial reaction to the news was: “This is crazy!” Like many others, he couldn’t believe the Squamish Nation would put itself in the paradoxical position of provoking criticism for their environmental insensitivity. (The signs wouldn’t threaten the environment per se, but at the main gateway of North Vancouver, they’re seen as visual pollution.) He knew that tact would be required in the face of aboriginals’ justified sense of historical grievance. Last fall, Hunter led the formation of an anti-billboard protest group, Citizens for Responsible Outdoor Advertising (CROA), and set up an online petition that soon had more than 1,000 names. Standing across from the Real Canadian Superstore on North Vancouver’s Mount Seymour Parkway on a grey November afternoon, Hunter points out the precise locations of the impending signs: two there, to his left at the traffic lights; several more beside the curving Highway 1 off-ramps across from the Holiday Inn; another one by the on-ramp over nearby Keith Road. Wherever he points, there’s rushing traffic, green directional signage and a snarl of intersecting highways. As he speaks, he conjures a sexy roadside ad for, say, perfume or sun-tan lotion, then claps his hands together hard. A momentarily distracted driver, a rear-ender. Galvanized by widespread public concern, Hunter has become, he admits, an outdoor-advertising expert. He takes issue with All Vision’s self-serving assurances to the Squamish Nation that electronic billboards are not a traffic hazard. His research says they are. In 2001, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration reported that while rotating Tri-Vision billboards on straight sections of roads have little effect on accident rates, signs located on curves or at cloverleafs and intersections can slow driver reaction times by almost two seconds, on average. They also increase the number of crashes in those locations by 10 to 20 per cent. That is why, in the majority of U.S. states, electronic billboards are prohibited within 150 to 300 metres of such highway configurations. (ICBC, which spends $45 million a year on road safety and loss prevention, has no research on the impact of electronic billboards on B.C. traffic accidents.) Together with other members of CROA, Hunter has announced that if the Squamish billboards do go up, the protest group will select one of the national advertisers and call for a boycott of that company. As president of eShippers Management, Hunter believes he has the Internet know-how to turn his business skills against an offending business. This past December, Squamish Chief Williams still maintained that despite the protests and political pressure, the billboards would go up. Once federal approval is received, he reiterated, groundwork will begin, likely by summer 2007. Construction could take a few months. But there’s always a chance the Squamish Nation may reconsider its plans. Prompted by the controversy, the three Squamish chiefs, their advisors and the mayors and city councillors of the affected Burrard Inlet municipalities gathered in North Vancouver in November to discuss the issues that bound and separated them. It was the first time in history all the local First Nations chiefs and all local civic leaders had convened. In true potlatch fashion, the mayors were presented with talking sticks and the chiefs received gifts from the mayors. The civic leaders heard about the Squamish Nation’s frustrations over the slowness of action on potential real-estate projects at Ambleside and Seymour Creek. As well, they heard about aboriginal concerns over municipal servicing of reserve lands, better road access to a proposed building-supply centre at Mosquito Creek Reserve, First Nations inclusion in Olympic cultural monies, and the Squamish-Concord Pacific residential community in an early development stage for Porteau Cove. The mayors expressed support for the First Nations’ wish to better the lives of their people. The top item on the mayors’ list of concerns was the billboards. They believe everything else hinges on the resolution of this issue. Said District of North Vancouver Mayor Walton later of that meeting: “Billboards are a sort of low-hanging fruit. Quick profits can be found there, sure. But we’re looking for a long-term collaborative strategy for big development projects. We hope there’ll be no billboards, so we can work together. There are a significant number of our citizens who are against the billboards. Let’s look at some different ideas.” In a December interview, Chief Williams acknowledges he was impressed by the sincerity of the mayors’ willingness to co-operate with First Nations. But he admits he’s still determined to proceed with the outdoor signs. “They’re not a bluff,” he says of the billboards. “They’re a real opportunity. We’re not backing off.” Yet, he also indicates, in what seemed like a telltale poker twitch, that the likelihood of the signs’ appearance would diminish if there were fast approvals of other projects the Squamish are working on, such as the building-supply centre in North Vancouver’s Lower Lonsdale district or the mall by Mount Seymour Parkway. To him, Squamish economic problems stem primarily from government foot-dragging. “The more opportunities we create for quick revenue, the less the need for the billboards,” he says. Parsing his words, it’s possible to hear that the outdoor signs are a sort of stalking horse meant to provoke authorities into expediting the First Nation’s other, less contentious plans. But condos, big malls, complex financing arrangements and government permits all take time. Lots of time. And that, Williams maintains, makes the billboards a near inevitability. “They could be up by fall, 2007. But by the summer of 2008, at the latest, the billboards will be up,” he says finally, as if weary of the topic. “Then, people can yell and scream about them all they want.”