Society

Vancouver’s new mega-development is big, ambitious and undeniably Indigenous

In B.C., Indigenous nations are reclaiming power and wealth for their own citizens—no matter what the neighbours think
Michelle Cyca
An image of a city shoreline with several skyscrapers

Vancouver has long been nicknamed the “city of glass” for its shimmering high-rise skyline. Over the next few years, that skyline will get a very large new addition: Sen̓áḵw, an 11-tower development that will Tetrize 6,000 apartments onto just over 10 acres of land in the heart of the city. Once complete, this will be the densest neighbourhood in Canada, providing thousands of homes for Vancouverites who have long been squeezed between the country’s priciest real estate and some of its lowest vacancy rates. 

Sen̓áḵw is big, ambitious and undeniably urban—and undeniably Indigenous. It’s being built on reserve land owned by the Squamish First Nation, and it’s spearheaded by the Squamish Nation itself, in partnership with the private real estate developer Westbank. Because the project is on First Nations land, not city land, it’s under Squamish authority, free of Vancouver’s zoning rules. And the Nation has chosen to build bigger, denser and taller than any development on city property would be allowed.

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Predictably, not everyone has been happy about it. Critics have included local planners, politicians and, especially, residents of Kitsilano Point, a rarified beachfront neighbourhood bordering the reserve. And there’s been an extra edge to their critiques that’s gone beyond standard-issue NIMBYism about too-tall buildings and preserving neighbourhood character. There’s also been a persistent sense of disbelief that Indigenous people could be responsible for this futuristic version of urban living. In 2022, Gordon Price, a prominent Vancouver urban planner and a former city councillor, told Gitxsan reporter Angela Sterritt, “When you’re building 30, 40-storey high rises out of concrete, there’s a big gap between that and an Indigenous way of building.” 

A rendering of a skyscraper with plant-filled balconies
In the absence of zoning regulations, the Squamish Nation is free to build as tall as it likes—and Sen̓áḵw will make the neighbourhood one of Canada’s densest (Photograph courtesy of Tandem Studios)

The subtext is as unmissable as a skyscraper: Indigenous culture and urban life—let alone urban development—don’t mix. That response isn’t confined to Sen̓áḵw, either. On Vancouver’s west side, the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations—through a joint partnership called MST Development Corp.—are planning a 12-tower development called the Heather Lands. In 2022, city councillor Colleen Hardwick said of that project, “How do you reconcile Indigenous ways of being with 18-storey high-rises?” (Hardwick, it goes without saying, is not Indigenous.) MST is also planning an even bigger development, called Iy̓álmexw in the Squamish language and ʔəy̓alməxʷ in Halkomelem. Better known as Jericho Lands, it will include 13,000 new homes on a 90-acre site. At a city council meeting this January, a stream of non-Indigenous residents turned up to oppose it. One woman speculated that the late Tsleil-Waututh Chief Dan George would be outraged at the “monstrous development on sacred land.” 

To Indigenous people themselves, though, these developments mark a decisive moment in the evolution of our sovereignty in this country. The fact is, Canadians aren’t used to seeing Indigenous people occupy places that are socially, economically or geographically valuable, like Sen̓áḵw. After decades of marginalization, our absence seems natural, our presence somehow unnatural. Something like Sen̓áḵw is remarkable not just in terms of its scale and economic value (expected to generate billions in revenue for the Squamish Nation). It’s remarkable because it’s a restoration of our authority and presence in the heart of a Canadian city.

A bird's eye view of Vancouver
The dense, tall cluster of towers will be built on reserve land at the foot of the Burrard Street Bridge, which runs between the neighbourhoods of Kitsilano Point and Davie Village (Photograph courtesy of Revery Architecture)

And in fact, Indigenous people have always been part of Canada’s cities—indeed, those cities were often built on top of Indigenous communities. Sen̓áḵw itself was a city of cedar longhouses long before Vancouver existed. Its Squamish residents saw their land carved up for railways, until at last they were loaded onto a barge and shipped away in 1913, their homes torched. Similarly, the heart of Winnipeg, where its rivers meet, has been a hub for Indigenous nations for thousands of years. The Mi’kmaq on the east coast gathered in what is now Halifax Harbour long before settlers showed up. Yet in every case, arriving settlers displaced Indigenous citizens, usually to more distant and marginal locations. Sometimes this was framed as benevolence: during the 1950s, Inuit families were airlifted from traditional lands to the extreme High Arctic, under the auspices of encouraging them to resume traditional ways of life. In fact they were serving as evidence of Canada’s Cold War-era sovereignty over the north, and they were separated from their lands and hunting grounds. Many died. 

But more recently, Indigenous communities have been re-asserting the power taken from them, winning victories affirming their sovereign and treaty rights—which in turn are providing more authority over their own affairs and economic development. Last spring in Ontario, 21 Anishinaabe communities won a $10-billion settlement for a fair share of the wealth generated from their lands, as guaranteed in the long-ignored Robinson-Huron Treaty of 1850. Or consider Bill C-92, which the Supreme Court of Canada upheld this February, affirming the jurisdictional rights of Indigenous nations over child welfare services. 

Likewise, the return of Sen̓áḵw to the Squamish people was only achieved after decades of court battles. Across the country, Indigenous nations have grown tired of waiting around for Canada to voluntarily uphold its end of the reconciliation bargain. Instead, they’re holding Canada and its citizens to account—not by request but by right, to claim the power long denied them. It’s that demonstration of power that makes some Canadians uneasy—Sen̓áḵw just happens to be a particularly and literally towering example of this sovereignty in action, one rising up from the heart of a major city.

What chafes critics, even those who might consider themselves progressive, is that they expect reconciliation to instead look like a kind of reversal, rewinding the tape of history to some museum-diorama past. Coalitions of neighbours near Iy̓álmexw and Sen̓áḵw have offered their own counter-proposals for developing the sites, featuring smaller, shorter buildings and other changes. At the January hearing for Iy̓álmexw, one resident called on the First Nations to build entirely with selectively logged B.C. timber, in accord with what she claimed were their cultural values. These types of requests reveal that many Canadians believe the purpose of reconciliation is not to uphold Indigenous rights and sovereignty, but to quietly scrub centuries of colonial residue from the landscape, ultimately in service of their own aesthetic preferences and personal interests. 

A bird's view of a skyscraper complex
The project, which will combine residential spaces with neighbourhood amenities like restaurants and a grocery store, is a restoration of Indigenous authority and presence in one of Canada’s largest cities (Photograph courtesy of Revery Architecture)

That attitude can cast Indigenous people in the role of glorified park rangers—and even then, with limits on their authority. Last August, when Líl̓wat and N’Quatqua First Nations exercised their jurisdiction by abruptly closing public access to Joffre Lakes Park, one of B.C.’s most popular Instagram backdrops, for a month of harvesting, hunting and ceremony, many visitors and nearby residents were outraged. No matter how it’s exercised, too much authority makes many Canadians nervous. But Indigenous nations are accountable, first and foremost, to their own citizens. That could mean temporarily barring access to traditional lands, as in Joffre Lakes. It could also mean maximizing the economic potential of their property, to provide housing and funds to support education, health care and community growth. As Squamish councillor Khelsilem told The Tyee in 2020, “Real estate development is an opportunity for us to generate real wealth for our community.”

In Sen̓áḵw’s case, it’s Indigenous by design, whatever it might look like to others. The project offers exciting architectural possibilities which could be replicated elsewhere by Indigenous leaders: a focus on communal public spaces rather than private yards, walking paths over parking spaces and the incorporation of Indigenous languages and designs reflecting thousands of years of site-specific history. And rather than taking an incremental approach to development, with concessions to nearby homeowners, the projects at Sen̓áḵw, Iy̓álmexw and Heather Lands consider the entire community—including those who don’t yet live there, and those often marginalized by city planning, such as renters, non-drivers and, obviously, Indigenous people. (250 affordable homes will be set aside at Sen̓áḵw for Squamish citizens, and managed by the nation’s non-profit society Hiy̓ám̓ Housing.) On the Sen̓áḵw website, the Squamish Nation emphasized that rental housing will provide economic benefits for the next seven generations of its citizens. The chiefs of all three nations emphasized that Iy̓álmexw is for both “current and future residents of the region.” 

A rendering of people frolicking on a green lawn under a concrete structure
The project will extend beneath the Burrard Street Bridge, where residents and the public will be able to enjoy outdoor sport and leisure facilities (Photograph courtesy of Revery Architecture)

Restoring Indigenous authority won’t turn back the clock to some pre-contact past. Instead it will propel us forward. These three First Nations have been resolute in their vision, refusing to diminish the size or scale of their developments to appease anyone. In fact, the number of homes planned for Iy̓álmexw has recently increased. And all three projects are proceeding. The policy plan for Iy̓álmexw was approved by Vancouver City Council in January. A lawsuit filed by a neighbourhood association to block Sen̓áḵw was dismissed last fall. Indigenous people as rights-holders, rather than recipients of Canadian largesse and tolerance, still makes some people uncomfortable, but they have some time to get used to it. Sen̓áḵw won’t be finished until around 2030. And in the decades that follow, Vancouver’s skyline will keep evolving—to look not like its colonial past, but an increasingly Indigenous future.