The Campbell River First Nations Band has welcomed a lease deal on their land with the American, union-busting goliath Wal Mart, but not without opposition from the town's municipal council for fears of the economic impact on merchants from the mega store.
Jodee Dick tries to mask the signs of mounting pressure, but the message on her coffee cup gives her away: ‘So much stress, so little time.’ Dick, economic development officer for the Campbell River Indian Band, pulls papers from an overflowing filing cabinet and dashes to make copies. She wears red sweatpants with C-A-N-A-D-A emblazoned on the rear, a white Nike shirt and blue Nike sports sandals. She has good reason to be buzzing. It’s late April 2005 and the band is on the brink of completing a deal that would allow it to buy back a piece of prized estuary – land it sold to a logging company a century ago for a few thousand dollars, a donkey engine and the promise of employment at a sawmill that was never built. This multimillion-dollar deal is big, but the source of the band’s finances is even bigger: Wal-Mart. The world’s largest retailer wants to sign a lucrative lease with the Campbell River First Nations to secure land for a new store – its 29th outlet in B.C. Wal-Mart money would allow the band to right an almost 100-year-old wrong. But are there any objections to a riverside Wal-Mart in this small, seaside city? There are quite a few, in fact. Last spring, hard on the heels of Wal-Mart’s five-year losing battle to build a big-box outlet on South East Marine Drive in Vancouver, the chain became embroiled in local politics yet again, this time in small-town B.C. The complaints were nothing new: Campbell River merchants worried about the economic impact of the megastore’s arrival; could they compete with the U.S.-based retailer’s rock-bottom prices? The local estuary protection group was concerned about the environmental repercussions; would toxic run-off kill the salmon? Residents were troubled by the changes in traffic patterns. And there were the familiar grumbles about allowing a union-busting American goliath onto Canadian turf. It’s obvious that Wal-Mart has its detractors, not just among grassroots Canadians but also at the corporate level. The chain’s relentless pressure on its suppliers to lower prices has prompted many manufacturers to move production offshore or close up shop altogether. But what made Wal-Mart’s expansion onto Vancouver Island – and specifically into Campbell River – debate-worthy was the quintessential B.C. twist. A First Nations group – the Campbell River Indian Band – was calling the shots. Wal-Mart represents a golden egg of opportunity for the band, which has already trained members to be Wal-Mart cashiers and planned to finance both the land purchase and a much-needed band housing development with Wal-Mart’s 99-year lease money and taxes. “Our First Nation has always looked at those lands [on the south side of the Campbell River estuary] as our lands,” says Dick, the daughter and granddaughter of band chiefs. “Getting the land back is one of the key things [we wanted], and Wal-Mart [was] a mechanism for us to do that.” What Jodee Dick and the Campbell River Indian Band weren’t banking on was that their carefully crafted business transaction would morph into what she calls “a nightmare.” Part of the $3.45-million property, then owned by TimberWest, would have to be rezoned for commercial use to accommodate the proposed store and its 700 parking spaces. The prospect of such a dramatic development didn’t exactly thrill locals. Opposing the zoning change was a large and vocal group of Campbell River citizens who didn’t want a Wal-Mart built beside the mouth of one of B.C.’s 20 designated ‘heritage rivers.’ In April of last year, Dick heard rumours that the Nature Conservancy of Canada was poised to snatch up the property and turn it into a park before the 12-week deadline for the band’s option to buy ran out. Dick was about to leave for Disneyland with her family. Her tiny office was bursting with stacks of papers. On her desk, a pile of spiked telephone messages was half-a-foot high. She just wanted everything to be over. Mike Gage also wanted the issue resolved – but with a different outcome. Tall, burly and quietly opinionated, Gage isn’t your stereotypical tree-hugging Wal-Mart opponent. He worked for more than 30 years as a supervisor for MacMillan Bloedel and Weyerhaeuser until he retired in 2005. In the past 10 years he’s helped raise millions of dollars to rehabilitate the Campbell River estuary and its smattering of islands, eel grass patches, marshes and mudflats. Just two decades ago this river, once replete with salmon, held only 200 Chinook in water spiked with heavy metals and bunker oil left over from logging. Last spring, the estuary waters teemed with hundreds of thousands of salmon fry. Some returned as tyee, the celebrated chinook salmon weighing more than 30 pounds. Gage believes it was pure folly to locate a Wal-Mart next to a heritage-designated river that lures tourists from all over the world. “They think just because of their size, they can go anywhere they like,” he said last April. “We’re going to show them otherwise.” And so the community divided along lines that carried unsettling vestiges of past disputes: First Nations versus non-First Nations. This is the story of what happens when a very large fish wants to live in a small pond. Former Campbell River mayor Lynn Nash presided over this city of 31,000 for almost three years. Last spring, recognizing that his term would be up in six months, he was seriously considering a second shot at mayor. But the Wal-Mart rezoning threatened to become an election quagmire. Some local merchants objected to a Wal-Mart so close to downtown’s faintly beating heart. Yet Nash knew that without a big-box outlet, shoppers from North Island communities such as Port Hardy would continue to drive right past Campbell River on their way to Courtenay’s new Wal-Mart, 25 minutes further down the Island Highway.The fracas also threatened to sully relations with the Campbell River Indian Band. The city was deep into discussions with the band to jointly manage North America’s first cruise ship port with a First Nations theme, slated to open for business in September 2006. Passengers, welcomed by native dancers and drummers on the beach, would disembark in a mock Indian village on reserve land and enter a customs building that resembled a Big House. The hope was that visitors would continue on foot through the city’s downtown shops, restaurants and art galleries. What was a mayor to do? A shrubby piece of privately owned waterfront land, idle and sporting a ‘for sale’ sign for six years, was suddenly what Nash calls “the most complicated piece of property in Campbell River.” Nash had no objections to a Wal-Mart somewhere in town. But many voters who supported him in the 2002 election didn’t want the big-box next to the estuary. Every Saturday morning for weeks last spring crowds gathered on the riverbank hoisting black-and-white signs that read, simply, ‘Not This Site.’ At that time, two of six city councillors vociferously opposed the rezoning. Two more were wavering. The municipal harmony Nash once oversaw was in tatters as his constituents squabbled publicly over the property coveted by Wal-Mart. With 5,700 stores worldwide, it was clear that the retailer operated on a scale hitherto unheard of in this small coastal town. Adding to the mayor’s growing unease was Wal-Mart’s sloppy rezoning application. “When it first came to council, it wasn’t presented in a very professional manner. So it was sent back,” Nash recalls. The application by First Pro Shopping Centres Inc., Wal-Mart’s pre-eminent Canadian developers, lacked “things a professional developer would know automatically,” he points out. Incomplete or missing: parking requirements, access roads, a traffic study, archeological study, economic impact study and a wildlife impact study. The estuary is home to 123 bird species, including the rare purple martin, on B.C.’s red list for endangered and threatened species. But to many, the most egregious omission concerned the store’s setback distances from the river. Drawings of the proposed development, presented by First Pro at an initial public information meeting in February last year, were based on information from a 1921 land survey. But according to the 1994 land survey – the most recent one available – the store appeared 27.5 metres closer to the river than First Pro’s initial drawings showed. Spokesperson Tiffany Duzita says the early drawings were “conceptual” and “based on the information that we had.” The setbacks were later corrected by First Pro. Kevin Groh, Wal-Mart’s Mississauga-based spokesman, admits to a “couple of false starts and stalls” in Campbell River. “In every community we go into we should know the local sensitivities and we should be prepared. And, in this instance, it appears that we weren’t,” he admits. When it came to the Campbell River Indian Band, though, Wal-Mart scored high on the sensitivity scale. The company planned to build its typical boxy blue store but, at the behest of the band, agreed to include some cross-cultural decorations. First Nations ‘cultural panels’ were to be installed on Wal-Mart’s four exterior corners, possibly across from its standard slogans ‘We Sell for Less’ and ‘Satisfaction Guaranteed.’ Panels would contain symbols of cultural importance to the band, including the mythical thunderbird and his brother Kolus, pictured with a thick tuft of hair – one of the traditional crests of Jodee Dick’s paternal family. Inside, two traditional welcoming poles fashioned by master carver Bill Henderson would greet shoppers. According to Dick, Wal-Mart also agreed to hire an unspecified number of qualified band members. In fact, band-sponsored training sessions for cashiers and ‘super hosts’ had already taken place. “We have First Nations that have companies – drywall, painting, excavation and groundwork – and we were looking for them to be part of the actual development,” Dick says.Everybody, it seems, had a stake in the proposed Wal-Mart. So many people showed up at the first public information meeting that they couldn’t all squeeze into the small community centre room booked by First Pro. From the start, it looked like Wal-Mart had stuck its foot in its mouth. Attendees received an information sheet with the word ‘Squamish’ crossed out but still clearly visible. First Pro’s Duzita says it was a typo. But to Gage and others at the meeting, the faux pas was proof that Wal-Mart was so convinced its Campbell River store was a shoo-in, it didn’t bother to make much of an effort. The city, inundated with calls, letters and emails, asked First Pro to hold a second public meeting in a larger venue. This time, First Pro arrived with the Wal-Mart wallop. Instead of two project advocates, it brought 12: a biologist, civil engineer, landscape architect, traffic engineer, architect, commercial land broker, two First Pro representatives and four speakers from the band, including Jodee Dick and current band chief Robert Pollard. Wal-Mart’s interest in Campbell River was tweaked in 1998, when Scott Lee, architect of Wal-Mart’s real estate strategy in western Canada, was scouting for a location to serve the north island community. Lee was delighted to find the estuary property for sale. The land abuts a major arterial road that leads to Campbell River’s downtown in one direction and Wal-Mart’s trucking route along the Island Highway in the other. First Pro was on the brink of purchase when a major glitch was uncovered. The waterfront property came with a vaguely defined ‘meandering easement’ clause dating back to the original sale of the reserve land. That clause gave 600 band members the potential legal right to crisscross the property anytime – a problematic scenario for any developer. Lawyers told First Pro it could take the issue to B.C. Supreme Court to try to nix the clause but it might not win. Lee examined other Campbell River sites over the next few years. Some were too small; others too far from the city centre. All roads led back to the estuary site – and the Campbell River Indian Band. Lee, knowing the band’s interest in the property, asked Remax listing agent Bruce Baikie to arrange the first of many meetings between Lee and then-band chief Aubrey Roberts, Jodee Dick’s father. Dick, her father’s assistant at the time, attended that first meeting. She went on to become the band’s key negotiator in protracted negotiations. Three years later, the deal was hatched. The band would use a 99-year lease with Wal-Mart for part of the property as collateral to buy the land. The deal, however, was contingent on the rezoning application. The final handshake was tantalizingly close but, as Dick surveyed the raucous crowd assembled in Thunderbird Hall for that second information meeting, she sensed that public opinion was largely set against the plan. “I felt very, very frustrated,” she remembers. It seemed no one was interested in hearing about the band’s quest to gain back its former reserve land, which it had sold to the International Timber Company in a very raw deal dating back to 1919 (See “Fire sale,” p.87). When estuary logging operations ceased more than a decade ago, the vacant land, owned by TimberWest Forest Co. and whittled down to 35 acres, became an unofficial community park, the largest green space near downtown. The question of First Nations ownership was disregarded by everyone until Wal-Mart came to town. Only after the retailer expressed an interest in the property did the Campbell River Indian Band file a land claim with the federal government in 2004, alleging the estuary land had been taken unfairly and requesting compensation. With an 111,000-square-foot Wal-Mart looming, Mike Gage and others subsequently decided to contact the Nature Conservancy of Canada, which offered to buy the land for a public park. Gage spent a lot of time on the estuary’s banks last year, much of it accompanied by his Springer spaniels, Lassa and Mincer, who enjoy racing along the trail that traces the river’s undulations. The trail starts near the main road leading to downtown Campbell River and is used by hikers, birders and families. A dozen volunteers convene here regularly to yank up Scotch broom, halting the spread of the invasive plant. Gage, currently chair of BC Hydro’s Bridge Coastal Fish and Wildlife Restoration Program, helped a consortium of government, industry and environmental groups raise money to buy land on the opposite side of the estuary, as well as a small island in the middle of the channel. “We bought that land so we could control what went on in the river,” he explained last spring. The purchases, coupled with building five kilometres of upstream spawning channels, facilitated salmon enhancement in the Campbell. Standing on the scrubby riverbank last spring, Gage recited statistics as confidently as if reading from a teleprompter. Swimming the Campbell in 2004 were: 45,000 chum, 25,000 pinks, 20,000 coho, 9,000 chinook and 100 sockeye. “This is the last big piece of the puzzle to get control over the estuary,” he mused. “We should have taken it more seriously and done something about purchasing the land three or four years ago rather than waiting until the eleventh hour.” The eleventh hour ticked by. The Nature Conservancy of Canada – Gage is a former board member – waited for Campbell River mayor Lynn Nash and his city council to reject Wal-Mart’s rezoning application. And in July they did, unanimously. No Wal-Mart would be built beside the river. But the ‘Big One’ was slippery. It got away. And four months later Wal-Mart jumped back with a plan so ingenious – some would say devious – that the views of council, Mike Gage and his cohorts and a majority of residents were rendered irrelevant. Wal-Mart announced it would build an even bigger store across the street from the estuary on reserve land already owned by the Campbell River Indian Band. Home Depot might set up shop alongside. Rezoning is not necessary. Public input is not required. Taxes will be paid to the band, not the municipality. And using Wal-Mart’s lease money, the band would still buy its old reserve land by the estuary, the original site under so much dispute. Wal-Mart always has a Plan B, and that’s one of the lessons here. If it discovers a potentially lucrative site, it will wait – for years if necessary – to build on that spot. In Guelph, Ontario, Wal-Mart’s reps sat out the rezoning battle for almost a decade as its application pinged back and forth through three city councils like a high-stakes tennis match, until the company was finally victorious in the final days of 2004. In Vancouver, where Wal-Mart’s rezoning application was rejected last June, company executives carefully watched the outcome of November’s municipal elections to see if political winds had shifted. In Campbell River, Wal-Mart’s Plan B was quietly finalized at the end of October with a letter of intent committing both parties to the deal. There was no immediate public announcement, no press release, just band chief Robert Pollard’s signature on a document approving terms and conditions, sent to Wal-Mart Canada’s head office. In the lull of summer, Campbell River city staff had suggested other sites to Wal-Mart, but the retailer wasn’t interested. Spurned once by the city, Wal-Mart preferred to do business exclusively with the Campbell River Indian Band. Lynn Nash, with the gentle diplomacy befitting a mayor, said he had no hard feelings and wished the band well. The next month, in November’s civic elections, he was resoundingly defeated, finishing third of five candidates. Plan B is even bigger than Plan A: a 133,000-square-foot store, among the largest in Canada, to be built on unoccupied band land directly across the street from the embattled estuary site. There will be 800 parking spots, at least 100 more than originally planned. The acreage of the site, too, has grown: 14 instead of 12. On the upside, the land isn’t considered to be as environmentally sensitive, given its location across Highway 19 from the original estuary site beside the river. (Some residents are concerned, however, by stormwater management of the site, and have asked city council to encourage the federal government to protect Nunns Creek, a nearby fish-bearing stream.) Details will be worked out behind closed doors with the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, in meetings not privy to the public or the municipality. “This is Campbell River Indian Band business,” explains chief Pollard. “What we do on our land is our business.” Wal-Mart is also negotiating with the Cowichan tribes in Duncan and the Adams Lake Indian Band in Salmon Arm to build stores on reserve land in those communities. Deals with both bands are almost complete, says Wal-Mart’s Kevin Groh, with only “dotting i’s and crossing t’s” remaining. For the world’s largest retailer, notorious for continuing the penny-pinching traditions of its founder Sam Walton (he drove a dilapidated pickup truck and flew economy class), locating stores on First Nations reserve land comes with financial perks: It sometimes takes longer to negotiate a federal land lease than to obtain rezoning, but on reserve land Wal-Mart doesn’t have to hire expensive city hall lobbyists and public relations consultants to champion contentious rezoning applications. It also doesn’t have to pay for economic impact studies. The biggest advantage to Wal-Mart, however, is the absence of public debate about everything from its labour policies to its impact on small stores – key public issues examined by journalists and others, including filmmaker Robert Greenwald in his controversial documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. Wal-Mart’s lease money and taxes will allow the Campbell River Indian Band to finally purchase the estuary land from TimberWest. The band plans to build 92 housing units, an elders’ centre, sports fields and five acres of commercial development on the site. Despite Mike Gage’s continuing efforts, the band, still smarting from the rezoning melee, says it has no interest in converting the land to a park. “Within the vicinity here they have three parks in, I’d say, a one-mile radius,” says Campbell River band chief Robert Pollard. “So why would we go in and help them out and put in another park when they were trying to cut our throats to put a whole park there?” Relations between the band and the city are, not surprisingly, strained. Back when he was still facing his re-election campaign, Nash cheerily depicted those relations as easily reparable, much like a dispute within a family. But from the band’s perspective, things are not the same. “We don’t sit down with them at the moment like we used to, council to council,” says Pollard. The city has been turfed from co-managing the cruise ship port with the band, and Pollard says the municipality won’t have a say in the Wal-Mart development on reserve land either, expected to open late 2006 or early 2007. A century ago, a prominent timber company offered something the Campbell River band badly needed – a $3,000 donkey engine and the promise of employment in what was then a thriving forest industry. Today, another corporation promises to help pave the band’s path to economic prosperity and historical redress. This time, with a retailing tyee like Wal-Mart on the hook, Jodee Dick is sure the outcome will be different. Fire sale The year is 1919. A company called International Timber Co. holds logging rights to the sprawling Campbell River valley and its virgin old-growth stands. For an annual rent of $100, the Campbell River Indian Band agrees to let International Timber construct a logging railway across its 350-acre reserve and establish a logging dump on the estuary banks. Band members, who eke out a simple existence hunting venison, trapping furs and fishing salmon, grasp an opportunity to better their fortunes in the logging industry. The band council agrees to buy a donkey engine from International Timber to hoist logs as thick as today’s minivans. One day, a West Coast Indian agent named William Halliday receives a letter of inquiry from International Timber Co.’s Vancouver manager. Would it be possible to purchase the Campbell River Indian Reserve “outright from the Indians?” Halliday haggles over the band’s price, set at $250 an acre. “If you are willing to meet them reasonably, they will try and help you out, but if not they may refuse [to sell you] the donkey [engine] entirely,” Halliday writes to Jodee Dick’s grandfather, then a band council member. The council, believing the $3,000 donkey engine will help catapult members into more prosperous times, agrees to sell 80 acres for just $150 an acre. “They voted ‘yes’ because they needed the donkey engine and they were promised that a sawmill would be built that would create jobs,” says Dick. The sawmill was never built. Northern Expansion Northern expansion since Wal-Mart came to Canada 11 years ago, it has grown like an underground fire: unnoticed until it pops up all around you. In just a decade, the giant has more than doubled its Canadian outlets to 261 and increased its market share to about 52 per cent. Along with Mexico, another high performer among Wal-Mart’s 10 international divisions, Canada has become a motherlode of sales for the Arkansas-based megalith. No one beyond the company’s boardroom knows the precise value of its Canadian ventures (Wal-Mart won’t disclose sales figures), but analysts peg the chain’s annual Canadian retail sales at about $11 billion. In B.C., Wal-Mart is in the throes of a major expansion, with seven more stores in the works for the province. B.C.’s 28th Wal-Mart opened in late November in Merritt, where U.S. mall developer Stanley Kroenke, husband of Wal-Mart heir Ann Walton, owns the half-million-acre Douglas Lake Ranch. Trace your finger through the Thompson-Okanagan and you see Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton’s “spreading out and filling in” expansion strategy in action. There are Wal-Marts in Penticton, Kelowna, Kamloops and Vernon, with another planned for Salmon Arm. Connect the dots on Vancouver Island and Wal-Mart’s powerful reach looms large: island store number six, in Port Alberni, opened last January. The store in Campbell River would be the seventh and most northerly bauble on Wal-Mart’s Vancouver Island bracelet. “They don’t just locate somewhere on the off chance that they may be able to make a buck,” ex-Campbell River mayor Lynn Nash points out. “They do their homework first.”