Real Estate Reformers
No.1: Mindy Wight and Khelsilem
Last fall, Squamish First Nation broke ground on Sen’ák¯w, a massive, years-in-the-making housing development at the south end of Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge, on 10-plus acres of Squamish land. The project represented the largest economic partnership between a First Nation and the federal government in history, with the feds providing a $1.4-billion CMHC loan—also the largest ever. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Housing Minister Ahmed Hussen were both at the ceremony, of course, but they were accompanied by two local officials: Khelsilem, chairperson of the Squamish Nation Council and, off-camera, Mindy Wight, the CEO of Nch´k¯ay’, the Nation’s business development arm. If Trudeau and Hussen embody the economic clout of the Canadian government, Khelsilem and Wight, young and ambitious, are poised to endow the Squamish people with unprecedented wealth and influence. They represent the new faces of Indigenous power.
The duo have been making political and economic waves for years. In 2017, at 29, Khelsilem was the youngest councillor to be elected to the Squamish Nation Council and appointed as one of two official spokespeople. Openly queer, and as comfortable in a voguing class as he is at a news conference, he quickly became renowned for his incisive anti-pipeline and housing activism and his strenuous efforts to preserve the Squamish language. Wight, who’s 41, grew up off-reserve in Prince George and trained as a chartered accountant. As a partner at MNP for almost five years, she ran the accounting firm’s national Indigenous tax services, working on governance and structuring with communities across the country. Wight wanted to give back to her own nation, so she joined Nch´k¯ay’’s board in 2019, then became CFO in 2021 and permanent CEO last fall. When Squamish Nation Council brought on Westbank—the firm behind Vancouver House and Toronto’s Mirvish Village—as a development partner on Sen’akw, Wight’s leadership was instrumental. Last year, Wight tapped former B.C. Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay to help expand the organization’s real estate portfolio.
Nch´k¯ay’ has already bankrolled several successful businesses across the Lower Mainland: a pair of marinas, an RV park and a gas bar. Sen’ák¯w, though, is on another level of complexity, size and potential political transformation. When complete, it will include 11 rental apartment towers (housing up to 10,000 people), plus a new public transit station, childcare space, thousands of bike parking spots, 50,000 square feet of park and recreation facilities and—vital for a region in agonizing need of affordable housing—1,200 units below market rates. Squamish Nation members and businesses will be given priority.
Do you know the history of Sen̓áḵw? Let's take a walk back in time.
Long before the arrival of European settlers, Sen̓áḵw was a @SquamishNation village on the shores of what is known today as Kitsilano.
Sen̓áḵw was bountiful with fish, elk, cedar, and many more resources. pic.twitter.com/3FFMqQpzy8
— Nch’ḵaỷ Development Corporation (@nchkaycorp) March 10, 2023
Because Sen’ák¯w is being built on reserve land, it’s also legally free from the regulations and permits required of other developers; it will be bigger, and far denser, than most other housing complexes in the city centre. The entire project is estimated to cost $3 billion, and Westbank will split all future revenue with the Squamish Nation, which hopes to make between $8 billion and $10 billion over the project’s lifespan. Much of that money has been earmarked to provide secure, affordable housing and other social services for Nation members in other parts of the province.
For Khelsilem, Wight and other members of the Squamish Nation, Sen’ák¯w represents a new future—one in which reconciliation is as much about genuine financial reparations as it is about moral reckoning. Centuries ago, this wedge of waterfront land was a Squamish summer village and trading hot spot, its waters rich with fish and its red-cedar forests patrolled by elk. When Vancouver was founded in the late 19th century, however, the territory was reduced to a reserve—and then even that was taken away. Provincial government officials burned the village in 1913, and families were banished to neighbouring nations. In 2003, after decades of court battles, the Federal Court of Canada finally returned a small portion of that land, upon which Sen’ák¯w is now being built. The fish and elk are long gone, but the land itself has become—thanks to Vancouver’s overheated housing market—almost priceless. And thanks in part to Khelsilem and Wight, the Squamish people will be able to return to live and work where their ancestors once did.
Sen’ák¯w is a homecoming—and it’s just the beginning. Other First Nations are sitting on goldmines, too. In 2014, Squamish Nation, Musqueam Nation, and Tsleil-Waututh Nation signed an agreement to co-operate on land acquisitions and partnerships. Their for-profit real estate arm, MST Development, now owns six properties in the Metro Vancouver area, totalling 160 acres and worth $5 billion. Much of this land is already under development, promising yet more affordable housing, new transit and even a proposed film studio. Sen’ák¯w might look very different than it did before settlers took over, but soon enough, the city around it might look very much like Sen’ák¯w.