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magazine / apr08

April 2008 issue


No reservations
The landmark treaty of British Columbia’s Tsawwassen First Nation will abolish its reserve, add to its land base and end the tax exemption that has long defined Indian identity in Canada. Opposition is fierce, but the province’s chief negotiator argues that the agreement will give the Tsawwassen what they seek most — control of their destiny.
By Katherine Gordon with photography by Marina Dodis

Nearly eight million people speed across the tiny crescent-shaped home of British Columbia’s Tsawwassen First Nation each year on their way to or from the bustling ferry terminal that links Vancouver to Victoria and other island ports. With only 290 hectares of swampy, salt-saturated land on the southern Strait of Georgia, Tsawwassen (pop. 328) is one of the smallest Indian reserves in Canada.



When the provincial government broke ground for the ferry terminal in 1958, “the first anyone here knew about it was a foreman knocking at the chief ’s door at six in the morning and asking where they should park the trucks,” says Kim Baird, the current chief of the Tsawwassen (pronounced tuh-wass-en). The new highway built to link Vancouver to the terminal sliced right through the reserve. There was a longhouse in its path, so government contractors unceremoniously tore it down. Ten years later, construction began to the north on the Roberts Bank coal port and container terminal, the West Coast’s largest freight hub.

The Tsawwassen Treaty is the first to be settled in a difficult urban context: the fishbowl that is British Columbia’s highly politicized Vancouver region. It has attracted wide attention and is proving to have far-reaching implications.
The influx of speeding vehicles along the highway often forced band members to wait half an hour or more for a break in traffic to cross from one side of the community to the other. Successive Tsawwassen councils, afraid that someone would eventually be killed, urged the provincial highways department to install pressure-sensitive pads on the road and hand-activated controls for pedestrians. The government finally got around to it in 2003. But that was too late for Baird’s seven-year-old cousin Clint Gurniak, who was hit by a car in 1982 while trying to cross the highway.

Baird has a loud and infectious laugh and a shock of uncontrollable curly brown hair. She grew up on the Lower Mainland and moved to the reserve with her family when she was a teenager. In 1990, she was a 20-year-old arts student at Kwantlen University College in Surrey, B.C., and so outraged by what she learned of the losses her people had suffered that she persuaded then chief Tony Jacobs to hire her to start working on Tsawwassen’s land claims. Three years later, with her prodding, Tsawwassen began formal negotiations with the federal and provincial governments. That same year, Baird was elected to the council, and in 1998, she became chief.

Now 37 and the mother of two young children, she has just won approvals from the Tsawwassen and the provincial government for a treaty that is revolutionary in its potential impact and influence on Canada’s future relationship with aboriginal people.

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Comments on this articleLeave a comment

Tax Exemption does not, and has never, defined First Nation status in any way shape or form. Culture and ethnicity are neither reinforced nor proven by such a trivial and useless thing. While it is difficult for some to believe, it wasn't a hard decision to give up 'tax free status' and instead take back the right to determine independently who is an who is not Tsawwassen, develop lands apropriately and safely, create and establish governing policies... the list is too long for this space. To be out from under the Indian Act and be considered fully human is a long-held dream that is finally being realized.

Submitted by openeyes on Monday, May 19, 2008

Who is going to read this? I would like the Dubia's of the world to do so, so we can approach this from a global perspective as opposed to another version of urban sprawl. I have coined the term Greener Gateway to describe a healthy approach. Any takers?

Submitted by remo williams on Wednesday, April 9, 2008

This group reneging their tax rights is a strong step in the right direction. Like some writer wrote re. the resources on tribal lands: "they teach us how to dig them up and carry them out." This move is a step toward independence.
It is like an adolescent leaving home for the first time. It may be painful and they may stumble, but when they get it right, they will rock.

Submitted by Ramona Kiyoshk, Ojibway on Wednesday, April 9, 2008

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